Retail Sales of Five Leading Pain Medications are on the Rise

Karen Lee Richards Health Guide
  • A recent USA Today article “Pain Medicine Use Has Nearly Doubled” reports that the retail sales of five leading pain medications rose 90 percent from 1997 to 2005 (the most recent year for which data was available). The Associated Press analyzed DEA figures that covered the “nationwide sales and distribution of drugs by hospitals, retail pharmacies, doctors and teaching institutions.” The five medications included in the report were oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, morphine and meperidine, with oxycodone being responsible for most of the increase.

    The AP investigation attributed the increase to three primary factors:
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    • An increasingly large aging population.
    • Unprecedented marketing campaigns by pharmaceutical companies.
    • A significant change in the philosophy of pain management.
    For those of us who live in pain every day, it is heartening to know that more doctors are paying attention to pain and consider pain management important. However, the article also quoted one pain management specialist who is concerned that the new philosophy has gone too far. What followed the quote was a fairly typical discussion about how the abuse of prescription pain medications is increasing.

    The article acknowledged, “The vast majority of people with prescriptions use the drugs safely.” Yet a significant portion of the article was devoted to discussing the increase in prescription drug abuse and the high profile arrests of doctors whom allegedly over-prescribed narcotic pain medications. Although the DEA admits that fewer than one percent of doctors provide drugs to patients illegally, the well-publicized arrests have led some doctors to simply refuse to prescribe any painkillers –– regardless of the patient’s condition and need.

    This article brought back to mind a number of questions about chronic pain illnesses in general and pain medications specifically.
    • Are more people suffering with chronic pain illnesses today than fifty years ago? If so, what is causing the increase –– environmental toxins, poorer eating habits, higher levels of stress? If not, why didn’t we hear more about them? Did patients suffer in silence? Were they written off as hypochondriacs and ignored?
    • Why are people with serious chronic pain being punished because some people abuse prescription drugs –– especially when the data shows that the “vast majority” use the medications properly?
    • Is there some way to make it easier for doctors to detect and separate patients with real pain from the drug seekers?
    Unfortunately, I have a lot more questions than answers. I just know it breaks my heart every time I hear about a patient who can’t find a doctor willing to deal with pain issues, or one who goes to an emergency room needing help for unbearable pain and is dismissed as a drug seeker. Yes, I believe narcotic painkillers should be a last resort. But if we get to our last resort, we need to know that help is available.
Published On: August 27, 2007