Sam Bauman: America’s obsession with pain killers



The headline caught my eye on the cover of Consumer Reports magazine for September: “America’s Scary Pain Pill Habit.”

Summoned memories for me of my knee surgery when Dr. Edmunds replaced my worn-out right knee so I could ski. The operation was a total success, but getting over it took many pain pills.

For three of four days I was popping Oxycontin regularly until my son and visiting former wife stopped me. I didn’t get hooked but I kept the prescription on hand for future pain.

And once when my back was painful, I took a couple again. That was a disaster — difficulty swallowing, dry mouth, constipation. That was the last pain pill I took years ago. I still have some, probably outdated, for emergency use.

My back pain persists, but hanging for a horizontal bar tames it nicely.

But pain pills, even Tylenol, are banned for my medicine cabinet. Besides, they don’t work for me.

As I read the magazine article and I became clear to me that seniors are probably the most misusers of pain pills. And why not? We’ve spent lifetimes overworking our bodies. As we age, our bodies need repair and pills may seem to do the job.

The CR report was scary all right, but so was all that I found on the Internet under “pain pills.” (I’ve combined parts of several of Internet reports here.) One of the most recent concerned a newly approved hydrocodone-based drug call Zohydro ER. It’s powerful but isn’t any better than existing pain drugs, some 40 petitioners wrote the FDA, urging its ban.

The already existing opioids drugs such as Oxycontin, Percocet and Vicodin do the same as the more powerful Zohydo ER. The approval is still controversial.

But a longtime drug considered safe is also a problem, and that’s acetaminophen (Tylenol and generic). Some 80,000 people are treated in emergency annually because they have taken too much of it. It is the most common cause of liver failure these days.

The FDA has reduced the max prescribed pill dose of acetaminophen but hasn’t done the same for over the counter pills. Some OTC acetaminophen pills suggest no more than 1,000 milligrams daily while others suggest up to four times that amount. Easy to overdo since some 600 OTC pills contain acetaminophen — allergy aids, cough and cold medicines, fever reducers, pain relievers and sleeping aids.

Back to Zohydro.

“It’s a whopping dose of hydrocodone packed in an easy-to-crush capsule,” said Dr. Andrew Kolodny, president of the advocacy group Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing. “It will kill people as soon as it’s released.”

The concerns echoed by all groups are broadly about the drug’s potency and abuse potential. They say they fear that Zohydro — especially at higher doses — will amplify already rising overdose numbers.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, prescription opioid deaths more than quadrupled since 1999 — there were 4,030 deaths involving the drugs in 1999, compared with 16,651 in 2010.

Both Zohydro’s maker, Zogenix, and the FDA assert the drug’s benefits outweigh its risks.

Americans consume 80 percent of the world’s supply of painkillers as the country’s prescription drug abuse epidemic explodes.

That’s enough drugs to give every single American 64 Percocets or Vicodin. And pain pill prescriptions continue to surge, up 600 percent in 10 years, thanks to doctors who are more and more willing to hand out drugs to patients who are suffering.

I’ll have more on pain pills next week, particularly as they relate to seniors.


Learn the history of Washoe Valley on Wednesday. This is a one-mile round-trip hike to the gazebo on the Deadman’s Creek Trail. The hike is limited to 30 people. Reservations required.

Dress appropriately including boots. Participants also should bring water and a flashlight. Leave your name, phone number and number of people in your party at (775) 687-4319. Park personnel will call back to confirm your reservation. Dogs are not allowed.

This is of my favorite walk, moderate and delightful. See you there.

Sam Bauman writes about senior issues for the Nevada Appeal.


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