Painkiller ‘epidemic’ raising drug death toll

LAFAYETTE, Ind. (WLFI) — Prescription painkiller abuse is a growing national trend and Tippecanoe County is no exception. Local doctors, pharmacists, paramedics and police are battling soaring prescription rates and a cycle of abuse that can include street drugs.

Heroin and cocaine are still as dangerous and arguably prevalent as ever, but this new class of drug abuse is gaining popularity in Indiana.

“I once took out a $10,000 personal loan for the purchase of Oxycontin,” said Matt Cook, a recovering painkiller addict.

Cook was prescribed Oxycontin, a powerful opioid painkiller, for a back injury he suffered around 10 years ago at work. Like so many others who are introduced to these drugs legitimately, he got hooked on the pills. Doctors eventually cut him off, but withdrawal from these medications is torture for addicts.

“Life without them is hell,” said Cook. “It feels like someone has a hand in your chest and is twisting, tightening. Like you’re hand tightening something.”

Cook turned to the streets to get prescription painkillers, even using heroin to replace the pain of a withdrawal. Oxycontin is one of many addictive medications prescribed to fight pain. Opana, Hydrocodone and Morphine are all part of the opioid group in pharmacies across the United States.

Stories like Cook’s may be shocking but they are increasingly common.

“Opiate addiction, heroin and prescription medication (addiction) has become an epidemic across the United States,” said Amy Schaller-Page, executive director of Home with Hope halfway house in Lafayette.

There is a growing consensus among doctors and pharmacists that the more prescriptions that are handed out, the more people will become addicted and even overdose.

A July report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention looked at painkiller prescription rates in all 50 states. The report sounded the alarm about the availability of these drugs nationwide. Indiana has the ninth highest prescription rate in the country. In fact, there are more painkiller prescriptions in the state than there are adults.

“On the individual level, we have evidence that the more opioid prescriptions a person receives and the higher their daily dosage, they more likely they are to abuse opioids and overdose on them,” CDC spokesperson Courtney Lenard told News 18 in an email.

Availability isn’t the only concern. These drugs are very powerful. That’s what allows them to be so effective at fighting pain. However, they can change the way the brain works, according to Dr. Marc Estes, who is the medical director at IU Health Arnett’s emergency room. He also advises the Monticello Fire Department on how to handle prescription drug emergencies.

“Once you have used them for a period of time — even as directed, you had surgery, you had an injury…After a few days, your body becomes physiologically addicted to the medication,” said Dr. Estes.

Cook, Dr. Estes and many others agree personal responsibility and accountability are the best ways to prevent drug abuse. Yet when people take the drugs for weeks or months, a life without them looks less possible as time passes. Dependency is what eventually leads to overdose, which is on the rise locally.

A comprehensive, 20-year survey released last week by the Tippecanoe County Coroner’s Office shows accidental overdose deaths are spiking. From 1993 to 2013, drug overdoses increased 370 percent, far outpacing the rise in population. In the last 10 years, from 2003 to 2013, drugs killed 105 people. That is more than three times the amount of lives claimed from drunk driving in that period.

When painkiller addicts are cut off from their supply, many turn to the streets, as Cook did. Heroin is often cheaper than obtaining prescription pills on the street, according to Lt. Brad Bishop of the Tippecanoe County Drug Task Force. For heroin users who want to get clean, that leads to a legitimate prescription of Methadone, an opioid drug that can be addictive.

Dr. Estes said Methadone addictions are not common. However, Methadone accounted for more overdose deaths than any other drug in Tippecanoe County from 2003 to 2013, according to the coroner’s survey. Schaller-Page said for someone who hasn’t taken any substance in the right dose for years, addiction and abuse shouldn’t be ruled out.

This dangerous cycle frustrates Schaller-Page, who worries this problem will get worse before it gets better.

“I wish there was some magical solution, but it seems to be getting worse,” she said. “The problem is getting worse and it’s not going to go away unless we do something about it.”

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