Within the last decade or so, deaths in the state of Tennessee due to prescription painkiller abuse have risen by about 500 percent. Although, the overuse of pain medication in the state started off as a relatively small problem, confined mainly to the Appalachian region, it is now a full-blown epidemic. According to a recent study, it was found that one in every three residents of Tennessee is prescribed narcotic painkillers every year. Between 2007 and 2011, alone, 5.2 million residents were given a total of 37 million prescriptions for this type of medication, also referred to as opioids. Creating such a huge cache of available drugs helps to account for the epidemic of prescription narcotic abuse in the state.
A significant percentage of prescription narcotic users in Tennessee partake in the practice oftentimes referred to as “doctor shopping” – where patients will go from one physician to the next, in order to prolong their usage of pain medication. As many as 5,000 state residents received prescriptions from at least 10 different doctors and a smaller percentage will utilize up to four different pharmacies for obtaining the narcotics – which include opioid-based brand names such as OxyContin and Vicodin. According to Dr. Timothy Jones of the Tennessee Department of Health, “…If you’re getting that many prescriptions from that many doctors, you’re working pretty hard at it.”
Reports have shown that having an ongoing prescription for narcotic painkillers, although technically legal, can lead to addiction, abuse and overdose. After lengthy use of strong opioid medication, patients often crave higher doses and may become hypersensitive to pain from a residual condition known as hyperalgesia. Thus, a cycle is created, wherein the patient literally needs to continually increase the amount of dosage in order to maintain. Not surprising is the fact that deaths in the state of Tennessee related to abuse of narcotic painkillers has increased from 118 casualties in 2001 to 564 in 2011.
The prescribing and over-prescribing of narcotic painkillers in this country has become the subject of controversy in the last few years. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) about 12 million Americans are misusing or abusing opioid medication each year. While many doctors recommend the drugs for pain management of chronic conditions such as arthritis, the guidelines for prescription remain somewhat vague. Pain medication ends up in the homes and hands of patients who may not actually need high doses or large quantities of opioids. These drugs are then sold, given out, or simply taken from mom and dad’s medicine cabinet. Moreover, obtaining prescription painkillers from family and friends accounts for roughly half of the narcotics used by chronic pain sufferers and, according to Christopher Jones of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, “…sharing medications [can] increase the risk that someone could overdose and die…”
Due to the abundance of pain medication with which Tennesseans seem to be saddled, there is many an opportunity for misuse. With roughly 1.4 prescriptions per resident, the state is sitting on a treasure trove of seriously strong opioid medication. This is the kind of statistic that lends itself quite easily to the widespread and ongoing epidemic. With such a large quantity of addicting painkillers in the hands of millions, the related death toll in the state of Tennessee has climbed higher than the total of casualties from both cocaine and heroin.
By Josh Taub