Dose of Reality

The Medical Society of Milwaukee County (MSMC) is proud to support the Attorney General’s Dose of Reality:  Prevent Prescription Painkiller Abuse in Wisconsin public awareness campaign. 

More than 150 deaths have been attributed to drug overdose in Milwaukee County in the first half of 2015.  And the problem is only expected to get worse. Dr. Brian Peterson, Chief Medical Examiner for Milwaukee County and President-elect of MSMC, has estimated that if current trends continue, “Overdoses will account for some 20% of our autopsies this year, compared to 10% motor vehicle accidents, less than 3% for infant deaths, and around 15% for homicides.”

Please take a moment to click here for more information on the Attorney General’s website about this critical issue.  For information on resources in Milwaukee, please call 211.  For all medical emergencies, dial 911.

Frequently asked questions

What is a narcotic pain killer?
Narcotics are drugs that come from the poppy plant. They share a number of effects including the ability to temporarily reduce pain. They can also be highly addictive.

What makes these pain killers addictive?
They stimulate parts of the brain that can cause you to want to take it again. They may help physical or emotional pain, or just make you feel happy. However, these effects wear off relatively quickly causing some people to want to use more and more of them. 

Who can become addicted to narcotic pain killers?
Anyone can become addicted, but some people are more prone to addiction than others. Things that may make a person more likely to become addicted include:

  • Having other addictions like smoking, alcoholism, obesity, or use of illegal drugs
  • Emotional or psychiatric disorders like bipolar disease, depression, or anxiety
  • A history of physical or emotional trauma
  • Unhappiness in their current life

How bad is this whole prescription narcotic addiction problem, anyway?
Prescription narcotic addiction is a public health crisis in Wisconsin and across the country. More Americans are dying of narcotic prescription overdose than of car accidents. An American dies of a drug overdose every 12 minutes. It is critical that patients work with their doctors to reduce the number of prescribed narcotic pain killers.

Are there any effective alternatives to narcotic pain killers?
Yes. First, see if there is a way to treat the root cause of the pain. If it isn’t possible to eliminate the source of your pain, there are other medicines that can help. You and your doctor may also consider procedures like cortisone injections or electrical stimulators to block pain. Physical or occupational therapy, massage, and other types of physical treatment can also be very helpful in reducing or eliminating pain.

Other things you can do to minimize or eliminate pain include getting proper exercises, counseling, changing how you position your body, and learning ways to train your brain to block pain.

How effective are non-narcotic pain killers?
Very effective. In fact, narcotics have not been shown to work well for long-term pain. Non-narcotic treatments appear to be much safer and more effective for pain lasting longer than 2-6 months.

Are narcotic pain killers ever safe to use?
If prescribed in proper doses to patients at low risk for addiction to treat short-term pain like pain experienced after an operation, a kidney stone or a broken bone, narcotic pain killers can be very helpful. If the pain lasts longer than 2-6 months, switching to non-narcotic treatments should be considered.

What are the signs and symptoms of addiction?
Unfortunately, the person becoming addicted is often the last one to realize they have a problem.  Signs to watch for include:

  • Waiting anxiously for the time when you can take your next pill.
  • Not wanting anything else for pain except the narcotic pain killer.
  • Losing interest in other things in your life – particularly things that used to make you happy.
  • Having your doctor or family members tell you they’re uncomfortable with your need for your narcotic pain killers.
  • Taking more than you are prescribed, running out early or saving pills so you can take several at once time.
  • Taking your medicine for reasons other than to treat pain, for example, just to make you “feel” better.

If you find yourself having to break the pills, chew them, snort them or take several at a time, you need to get treatment right away.

What’s the difference between overdosing and being addicted?
Overdosing means you are taking too high a dose for your body to handle.  It can cause you to get drowsy, fall asleep and slow your breathing. If these reactions are severe, they can result in death. 

Overdosing can occur if you don’t wait long enough between doses, you received a pill that is too strong or because another pill you’re taking is interacting with your narcotic pain killer. People trying to commit suicide also sometimes overdose on their medications on purpose.  These overdosing circumstances do not necessarily mean you’re addicted to the narcotic pain killer.

Being addicted means that you’re so driven to take your narcotic medication that you can’t control your urge. If you think there’s even a chance this might be true for you, you should see an addiction treatment counselor.

Why are overdosing and narcotic pain killer addiction so common?
When a person becomes addicted to narcotic pain killers, it can quickly get to the point where no amount of the drug is enough. Addiction starts as a very mild urge. The more of the addictive drug you take, the more you “feed” that urge and the stronger it gets.

When the addicted person is consistently taking more medication than is prescribed, the doctor may stop prescribing the narcotic pain killer.

Why would my doctor prescribe narcotic pain killers?
For many years, narcotics were considered safe and effective. However, current research studies   show that the risks are high and generally don’t outweigh the benefits. Because of this research, attitudes and practices are slowly beginning to change.

What should I say to my doctor if he/she thinks narcotic pain killers are my best treatment option?
It’s never wrong to ask if a less addictive treatment can work.  There may be times when a narcotic pain killer may be needed. If this is the case, your doctor can help you understand why.

What if non-narcotic pain killers don’t stop my pain as well as the narcotic pain killers?
This is something that should be discussed with your doctor. Research shows that narcotic pain killers wear off over time, can become less effective and may actually make pain worse. Non-narcotic pain killers don’t have this problem. Believing that “only narcotics work” may be cause for concern.

What if I still want to remain on my narcotic pain killers?
This is something you should discuss with your doctor. Because research has not been able to show that narcotic pain killers work long-term, combined with their significant side effects, including addiction, it is important to consider alternatives.

If I’ve been on narcotic pain killers for a long time, can I just stop taking them?
It is best to work with your doctor to gradually reduce your narcotic pain killers. If you suddenly stop narcotic pain killers, particularly if you are on fairly high doses and have been taking them for a long time, you can go through withdrawal.

If I have withdrawals when I don’t take my narcotic pain killers, does that mean I’m addicted?
Not necessarily. Withdrawals can occur because your body has adjusted to being on the narcotic and, when it is suddenly stopped, there can be some unpleasant effects. Addiction is where the urge to take more and more of the narcotic pain medication has gotten so severe that you are no longer able to control it.

Are young people more likely to become addicted to narcotic pain killers than others?
It appears there is some increased risk among youth and young adults. Although the causes remain uncertain, it appears it may be related to brain development and the development of strategies for coping with life’s difficulties.

Should youth or young adults ever be prescribed narcotic pain killers?
There are situations were narcotic pain killers may be the best option, especially for pain caused by an injury, surgery or other short–term problem. However, even in these situations, using other medications may reduce the need for narcotic pain killers. This is something that should be discussed with your doctor.

How can I keep my children safe and away from the narcotic pain killers in our house?
Narcotic pain killers, like other prescription medications, should be kept secured where only the person to whom they are prescribed can get them. The best way to secure these drugs is in a small safe or a locked drug cabinet.

Is it OK to share my prescription pain killers with a friend or relative if they need it?
No! It is never ok to share any prescription medication. People have different sensitivities to medicines. A dose of medicine that may help one person may overdose or even kill another. It is considered a felony to provide prescription narcotic pain killers to anyone other than yourself. It is considered drug abuse on their part to accept them.

What other side effects can narcotic pain killers have besides addiction?
The most serious side effect is that they can lower the drive to breathe which is particularly dangerous for people with lung or heart disease. Common side effects may include:

  • Constipation
  • Itchiness
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Mood changes
  • Lower sex hormones that can result in sexual dysfunction

For a full list of side effects, see the handout provided by the pharmacy when a narcotic pain killer prescription is filled.

Can narcotic pain killers affect an unborn child?
Yes. It is best for women trying to get pregnant to wean off narcotic pain killers before doing so. They should remain off them until after the baby is born and they have stopped breast-feeding. If a woman gets pregnant while taking narcotic pain killers, there is an increased likelihood of a variety of birth defects, including heart problems and the risk of premature birth roughly doubles. After delivery, the baby may go through withdrawal requiring up to a month in pediatric intensive care.

What should I do if I suspect my child or other family member is addicted to pain killers?
First, discuss it with other family members and with the prescribing doctor if possible. If other family members agree that this is a significant problem but the addicted person refuses to seek treatment, you can work with addiction specialists to conduct a meeting where all the family members explain how the person’s drug use has hurt them and help the person understand he or she needs to get treatment. Confrontations like this appear to significantly improve the chances that the person will get treatment.

What should I do with the narcotic drugs in my house that I don’t want to use any more?
Many police departments or local governments accept expired or unused medication. They may also offer occasional “drug drop off” events. Some pharmacies offer this service as well. What you don’t want to do is throw medication in the trash or flush it down the toilet.

Medical Society of Milwaukee County
P.O. Box 13114, Milwaukee, WI 53213
Phone: (414) 475-4750

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