The path from painkillers to heroin
Experts warn that prescription painkillers are leading individuals to become addicted to heroin.
According to the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, among 75% of heroin users report using opiod prescription pain medication prior to trying heroin. Despite the known side effects, painkillers like Co-codomol, Tramadol and Morphine are among the several prescription opiods prescribed by doctors in the UK for chronic pain. In 2017 alone, nearly 24 million opiods were prescribed in the UK. Further, recent figures from the Office for National Statistics show the number of people dying from opioid-related drug misuse has reached a record high in England and Wales, with around 3,700 people dying in 2016 because of drug misuse, 2000 of these involving an opiod medication. With the increase in prescription opiods use, many now question whether there is an increased risk of those who are prescribed such painkillers eventually using heroin.
Addiction through opiod painkillers develops quickly and before patients realise they progress from legitimate painkiller use to the stage of dependency and tolerance, meaning that the usual dosage is no longer sufficient to manage their pain and simply use the painkillers to keep withdrawals at bay. Many patients report that once their doctors become aware there is a problem, they stop prescribing and eventually cut them off completely; with little to no support and leaving them with nowhere to turn. Now dependent on the medication and their prescription no longer available, many patients become so desperate that they turn to heroin when they lose access to the painkillers.
This transition is all too familiar to one of PAST’s service users, who states “I broke my back in a car accident and was prescribed several pain killers, including MST (Morphine), Dydocodiene and Tramadol. I knew I was addicted as I had started to use the medication simply to feel normal and would often take more than necessary; resulting in me telling the doctor that I had ‘lost’ my prescription in order to obtain more. 3 years after my accident I was called into the doctor’s to speak about my repeat prescription and she expressed concern that I was addicted. I knew I was and she did too. The doctor immediately reduced my medication and gave me 3 weeks to come off the medication completely. The withdrawals were excruciating and I felt that I had no choice but to resort to buying the opiod pills on the street and online, and when this became too expensive I eventually began to use heroin.”
Whilst prescribed medication is not solely responsible for heroin use as many heroin users have not previously used prescription opiods, it cannot be denied that there is strong evidence demonstrating a significant number of patients prescribed opiods eventually move to heroin. There is no clear answer to this problem but it is certainly shows that there is a desperate need for support for those individuals who may have problems with prescription opiods.
If you think that you may have a problem with painkillers, whether prescription, over the counter or even online then why not attend a PAST meeting on a Tuesday afternoon at Chapter Arts, Cardiff for a coffee and a chat.
Written by Joanna Whitton – PAST