I am going to tell you about a patient of mine named Steve. That is not his real name but this is his real story. Steve was in a car accident at age 16. He did not break any bones but he did get bad whiplash. He was seen in the emergency room and treated for his problems. The doctor in the emergency room gave him a prescription for hydrocodone to help with his pain. Hydrocodone is a strong narcotic pain medicine and goes by brand names such as Vicodin, Lortab and Norco. The healing process from the car accident was slow. He did physical therapy. He saw chiropractors. He had good days and bad days. His pain was real. The narcotic pain medicine did help his pain so his doctor continued to give him refills as he worked through the healing process. However, as time passed his doctor eventually told him he needed to stop taking the strong pain medicine because of the concern over addiction potential. But his pain remained significant and he was too scared to stop them. Steve was afraid his pain would be unbearable without them.
When I met Steve he was 34 years old. He had struggled with chronic pain since he was 16. He came into the urgent care complaining of back pain. He told me he had been helping some friends move and he had thrown his back out. I did my evaluation, diagnosed him with muscle spasm, and recommended treatment including rest, ice, Tylenol, and ibuprofen. I also gave him a handout with stretches he could do at home to help his back recover. He asked me if he could have something stronger for the pain. At that point he told me that only Percocet (oxycodone, another narcotic pain medicine) worked for his pain.
As I had never met Steve before and he was asking me for a very strong pain prescription, I went online and pulled his narcotic prescription report. His report showed he had filled over 50 prescriptions for narcotics in the past year. They had been prescribed by many different doctors and were filled at many different pharmacies. The average narcotic prescription was written for 20 pills. Altogether he had received over 1000 narcotic pills during that time. His most recent prescription for Percocet had been filled just 3 days previously.
At that moment, it was clear Steve had a serious narcotic prescription problem. I showed him his prescription record. He seemed frustrated. He then told me his story beginning with the car accident at age 16. While dealing with the recovery of his back injury he graduated high school and started working. He got married. He had 3 kids. But the pain persisted. And the need for narcotic pain prescriptions persisted as well.
Slowly his life became more and more consumed by trying to get pain pills. He would constantly be thinking about how he would be able to get his next pain prescription. He went through all the doctors in his town until none of them would see him anymore. He got a reputation in the local emergency room as a “drug seeker” and they stopped treating him with narcotic pain pills. He was having to travel further and further to get pain medicine. He missed a lot of work. He lost several jobs over this. His wife supported him financially until she realized he wasn’t looking for jobs anymore – he was spending all his time going around the state looking for pain medicine. She tried to get him help when she realized what was going on. But he grew tired of feeling judged. They got a divorce.
At the point I met Steve he was single, on disability, not involved with his kids at all, and exceptionally angry. He felt no one believed his pain was real. He begged me for narcotic pain medicine. I offered him other solutions which he declined. He left, quite upset. I have never seen him since.
Steve’s life was ruled by narcotic pain medicine. Steve’s life was destroyed by narcotic pain medicine. His experience should be a cautionary tale for all of us but unfortunately his story is not unique. The narcotic (also called opioid) epidemic is ravaging our nation and Utah has not been spared. In fact, in Utah one person dies nearly every day from an opioid overdose. Utah also has the 7th highest drug overdose rate in the nation. Clearly, we are not “safe” in Utah.
What can we do? What can you do? How can you protect yourself and your family from this scourge? Start by educating yourself about the problem. Go to the website www.opidemic.org. They give detailed information on this epidemic and how to address it.
Never starting down the path of using narcotics is the first step. This year Utah and other states passed strict laws limiting and monitoring how physicians prescribe opioids. Physicians are strongly encouraged to avoid prescribing narcotics for things like lacerations, broken bones and even after surgery. You may find your doctor offering you other pain control options aside from narcotics. Heed that counsel.
If you already take narcotic pain medicines or if you have an accident and your doctor offers you a narcotic prescription to help with pain, I encourage you to ask your doctor what other options for pain control might be available to you. There may be safer alternatives for you to consider.
Remember Steve. Remember that his problems starting out innocently at 16 years of age after his car accident. If his doctors had offered him other pain options at the beginning or if his parents had known to ask questions about the narcotic pain prescriptions, then his life of opioid addiction would have been entirely avoided. We don’t want anyone to end up like Steve. Help yourself and help protect your family.
I have other patients who have struggled with opioid addiction but have decided to act to not let it rule their lives. I have patients who have gotten off narcotics and have been able to take back control of their lives. They feel better. They have more energy. They can think more clearly. They can experience joy again. And they urge me, beg me, to never prescribe them or anyone else a narcotic prescription ever again. They tell me it is worth it to put up with some extra pain right now, and maybe even a few sleepless nights because of bad pain, rather than to start down a path that can lead to opioid addiction. And I believe them.
By Matthew Walton, DO
Canyon View Family Medicine