An estimated 91 percent of people who were hospitalized due to an overdose on prescription painkillers continued to take the medication after the event, according to a study published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine.
Dr. Marc LaRochelle is an Assistant Professor of Medicine at Boston University School of Medicine, an Attending Physician in the department of General Internal Medicine at Boston Medical Center, and lead author of the study. He said: “I was surprised. I thought we’d see a number that was shocking but this is more than we thought.”
Why would people continue to take a substance that clearly endangers their lives, especially after being given a second chance? For those living with chronic pain, there is no easy answer to that question. To continue taking the drugs may be life-threatening but to stop taking the medication – the only buffer they have between themselves and days and nights defined by ongoing pain – is not an option.
Additionally, many physicians who prescribe the drug that caused the overdose may not realize that the overdose occurred and thus have no reason to alter the prescription. Individuals who are taking the medication may not realize that there are other options.
The good news is that clarity and support can help someone struggling with opiate painkillers even if that person is also living with chronic pain. Addressing the situation starts with acknowledging that there is a problem, and certainly, an overdose is a signifier that it is time for a change. According to the study, those who overdose once on their medication are twice as likely to overdose a second time.
After an Overdose
Waking up in a hospital is a jarring indication that a reassessment of any standing prescriptions that contributed to the overdose is due. In that state, it can be difficult to determine what exactly happened and why or what to do next. Though everyone is different, in general, it is recommended that if you find yourself in this situation, you:
- Talk to the emergency physician:Discuss what happened during the overdose with your emergency care team so you can gain a better understanding of the event.
- Take a copy of the medical record of the admission and following events: Get a printed copy of all the information gathered during your overdose.
- Schedule an appointment with the prescribing physician: Bring the information with you to an appointment with the doctor who prescribes your medication. Discuss the implications of what happened and create a plan that will help you to actively pursue holistic methods of pain management that will in turn allow you to lower your dose of opiate painkillers in the future.
- Track everything: As you begin to make changes, keep track of everything: the dose of medication you take, the holistic treatments you take part in and how often, the changes in your level of pain. The more data you have to look at, the better able you will be to see what works and what doesn’t work.
- Schedule follow up appointments: Schedule appointments to check in with your physician and other treatment providers to make sure that your treatment plan is up to date and that you are progressing as you should.
When Addiction Is an Issue
Whether or not chronic pain is the reason for the original painkiller prescription, if overdose occurs and the person finds it impossible to stop using painkillers despite negative consequences, it is a sign of addiction. When someone is living with both chronic pain and addiction, professional help is required that can address both issues simultaneously. Total cessation of use of painkillers may not initially be possible. It will take time and a personalized treatment plan – as well as round-the-clock care, in most situations – to make sure that detox and treatment occur safely and effectively.
Continued Progress and Sustained Change
It can take time to see sustainable change when managing chronic pain. Depending upon the cause of the pain, it may be helpful for the individual to lose weight, improve nutrient intake, improve sleep hygiene, and/or take part in holistic treatments like acupuncture, bodywork, and massage. Physical therapy may be recommended as well.
Additionally, if the prescribing physician is a family care practitioner, it may be helpful to seek the support of a pain management specialist who can recommend a detailed course of action to address the problem.
Said Dr. Rochelle: “We need to do something at a policy level and a system level to make sure information is being communicated and better tools are developed to identify and intervene on patients who have risky use and are at high risk for having problems.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 44 Americans lose their lives every day to a painkiller overdose, and the number of prescriptions for opiate medications handed out every year has quadrupled since 1999. If you, or someone you love, are struggling with chronic pain and a dependence upon painkillers, the risk of overdose is real. Learn more about the different ways to address chronic pain healthfully and lower the risk of overdose. If addiction is an issue, connect with treatment services that can help you, or the person you love, start down the road to recovery.