The United States is arguably the most overmedicated country in the world. We have only five percent of the entire world’s population yet we consume more than eighty percent of the world’s annual supply of substances. In 2016, more than two-hundred and seventy-two million prescriptions were written for just opioid drugs alone. When you add that number to the number of prescriptions written for psychiatric and psychotropic medications and the numbers of prescriptions written for sedatives, stimulants, tranquilizers, etc. all of which are addictive drugs, there were enough prescriptions written in the U.S. that year to dope up every single American for the entire year.
Regardless of one’s opinion about prescription drugs, their relative efficacy or lack thereof, the wisdom of their use, the honesty or moral integrity of pharmaceutical companies, etc. one can be absolutely certain that our country is suffering from an overprescribing epidemic. The overprescribing epidemic has caused millions of Americans to become addicted to the very drugs that were supposed to help them with a physical or mental problem, or a combination of the two.
The vast majority of doctors mean well in their prescribing methods. However, America’s entire concept of pain has changed quite a bit in recent years. Pain is very difficult to diagnose. Most doctors feel strongly that this is the case. One study by Health Day News estimated that about ninety-nine percent of doctors err on the side of prescribing too much opioid pain reliever drugs. The Food and Drug Administration recommends a three-day dosage of painkillers, and most doctors prescribe at least a week’s worth, some prescribing ten to twenty or even thirty days of the medications to patients.
The obvious downside of these prescribing habits is that the more an individual takes prescription opioids, the greater the likelihood that they will become addicted to the drugs. A three-day window of taking painkillers leaves little chance of a dependency coming up, but several days or even weeks of taking the drugs creates a much stronger chance of a dependency kicking in.
Studies show that nearly twenty-five percent of doctors start their patients on a one-month prescription for opioid painkillers when their patients complain of suffering from pain problems. According to the National Safety Council, these are drugs that can easily create brain changes and chemical dependencies after one month of use, some after only a week of use.
According to the National Safety Council, deaths from painkillers like Oxycontin, Percocet, and Vicodin now surpass deaths from heroin and cocaine combined. One doctor on the Safety Council spoke out in his report, saying that while doctors are well-intentioned to the very end, they need more training and education to treat pain effectively.
According to the National Safety Council’s survey in 2016:
In light of the problems and controversy regarding opioid dependence, fast action has been taken in a positive direction towards curbing this problem. The Food and Drug Administration ordered that warning labels be used on all prescription opioid painkiller drugs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued stringent guidelines for doctors who were prescribing these medicines. The CDC also labeled opioid prescription drug abuse as an Epidemic in the United States.
A Legal Epidemic
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, forty-seven thousand Americans died from a drug overdose in 2014. Just over fifty-thousand lost their lives in 2015. More than sixty-thousand died in 2016, thirty-thousand of which were from opioid overdoses. This death toll is quadruple the death toll from 1999.
Most doctors believe that the best way to counteract pills is with powerful painkillers. The logic is certainly there. It makes sense. Painkillers kill the pain a person feels. But the National Safety Council also notes that over-the-counter pain medications which are not nearly as addictive as prescription opioid painkillers also do the trick quite well. These are drugs like Ibuprofen, Advil, and Acetaminophen.
Most doctors will prescribe powerful painkillers for dental pain and back pain, a misinformed decision. More than seventy percent of doctors prescribe mind-altering painkillers for back pain, and fifty-five percent prescribe them for dental pain. However, the FDA, CDC, and NSC do not consider these drugs as the ideal treatment solution for back pain and dental pain. The safety council in particular reports that low-dose and low-strength pain relievers are usually more than sufficient for addressing these types of pain.
Another mistake that most doctors make (and this may be because of the expectations we have for doctors) is they almost never offer holistic solutions or alternatives. Doctors are expected to present “medical” solutions and only medical solutions, holistic treatment methods often being thought to be not really “medical” solutions. However, holistic treatments are very effective in treating pain and they present no possibility for an addiction to occur as a result of them.
There are better solutions down the road. Holistic alternatives are only one of many solutions we can employ to curb this problem. There are also legislative changes, changes in prescribing patterns, and ideally, a much-needed change in how we view pain.