When painkillers cause pain

Katherine Roth

“A new category of substance abuse is emerging in America,” according to Roy Bostock, chairman of the Partnership for a Drug Free America. “Increasingly, teenagers are getting high through the intentional abuse of medications…in other words, ‘Generation Rx,’ has arrived.” The Partnership has found through a national study that teens today are more likely to have abused a prescription painkiller to get high, than to have tried street drugs such as Ecstasy, cocaine and LSD.

Not only has this new era arrived, it is a developing trend among college students and their peers. Nearly 23.7 percent of 18-to 25-year-olds are abusing pain killers, according to the 2003 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. College students are swiftly becoming the number one abusers of prescription pain killers.

Although there are several groups of prescription drugs that are commonly abused, opioids, or medications that are prescribed to treat pain, are the most frequent. When taken according to dosage and other special directions given by the doctor writing the prescription, these types of medication help manage pain effectively. Opioids attach to opioid receptors, which are specific proteins found in the brain. The medication then blocks out the transmission of pain messages to the brain. However, when not used to treat pain, opioids cause euphoria for the user, because they also affect the regions of the brain that deal with pleasure. Non-medical pain reliever usage often leads to addiction.

OxyContin, Vicodin, and Dilaudid are the top prescription painkillers that are abused by teenagers in America. While all have side effects when used regularly, these side effects are intensified when large doses of the medication are consumed. Examining OxyContin alone, it has been found that severe respiratory depression or death can occur with a large single dose. OxyContin was designed to be a time-release medication – since it is supposed to be swallowed and absorbed slowly in the bloodstream, the entire effect of the medication is not felt right away. Those who abuse the medication have figured out several ways in which to get the entire high without having to wait. Chewing the tablets, crushing them and snorting them, or dissolving the pill and then injecting the liquid all speed up the release of the medication, but also increases the risk of overdose.

While most use is recreational, factors such as academic pressures and the necessity to self-medicate after surgery or illness can create a more frequent habit. There are other variables though that lead to the start of the problem. Gender, grade point average and living situation are all variables that create the need for release. The National Institute of Drug Abuse has found that women are more than two times likely to abuse prescription pain killers than men.

The top reason for the increase in prescription painkiller abuse has been said to be easy access. Not only can they be found in many medicine cabinets across the country, but there are also nearly 800,000 websites that sell prescription drugs and will ship to households with no questions asked. All that is required to do this is the possession of a credit card. Not only are the painkillers easily accessible, but they are legal, doctor-prescribed, and FDA approved. Many people perceive them to be much safer than street drugs.

Villanova University does not seem to have a serious problem with abuse of prescription pain killers. “There is not a problem here, but there has been an increase not in the use of prescription pain medicine but in the use of Adderall,” said Cathy Lovecchio, R.N., M.S.N., director of the Health and Wellness Center on campus. Ms. Lovecchio also relayed that the information regarding these statistics are not recent, as the latest survey was conducted in February 2004. A new survey will be taken in spring 2006, so that their statistics can be updated and a more accurate view of the current trends among students can be determined.