My wife and I recently binge-watched the Netflix mini-series “The Pharmacist”. It details a
pharmacist who was on the front lines of the opioid epidemic in the early 2000s and his crusade
to bring awareness and stop overdose deaths in New Orleans. And I have to say not only was it
incredibly well produced, but it was a fascinating watch. It will likely be incredibly frustrating,
however, so be prepared! This series got me to thinking on a research report I read several
years ago about how severely addictive opioids are, and how quickly they can ensnare patients.
The opioid epidemic has certainly gotten more press over the past several years and we have
finally seen legislation and litigation to hold those responsible for facilitating horrible amounts
of overdose and chemical dependency. But we cannot be too careful with these drugs, as they
are still prescribed to patients, daily.
While we may now be more aware of how addictive these drugs are, they can still ruin lives –
and do so. In fact, many patients who start out on opioids for pain turn to heroin once the pills
run out because it is a cheaper alternative (shocking, I know). But up until recently we always
assumed that opioids were only addictive if you “abused them” or used them “for a long time”.
In a publication by the CDC in 2017, researchers tried to determine how likely patients were to
be on opioids after 1 year or 3 years from initial prescription and usage.(1) What they found
Among those patients prescribed opioids, the odds of chronic use spiked after just three days.
Does that sound like a “long time” to you? It certainly does not for me. That’s a long weekend.
And the data revealed that after 7 days of opioid usage, the odds of still being on them at 1 year
were 13.5%. So, 1 out of every 7 people that take opioids for a week will still be taking them a
year later. The statistics get even worse after taking them for a month.
What’s frightening about this is that patients are often told to pre-emptively take opioids after
surgery or injury “to stay ahead of the pain”. While there is some truth to this strategy, we now
have to consider the long-term consequences. What if you try “to stay ahead of the pain” for 3
days? Well, you are now exponentially more at risk for becoming addicted. Now, I’m not telling
you how to take prescribed medication or to disobey your physician’s orders. However, gone
are the days that we can blindly trust medical advice. There are too many factors and players in
the game to blindly trust what we are told.
If these statistics scare you, good! It should. Oxycontin was massively prescribed in the 1990s
and 2000s and has been referred to as professionally marketed heroin. We should all be our
own healthcare advocate and should never stop asking questions. Your health depends on it!
Thanks for reading,