Constable: Doctor sees Prince's death bring painkiller abuse awareness
On a typical day in the United States, 46 people die from an overdose of a prescription painkiller. When one of those Americans is a 57-year-old rock legend named Prince, people notice.
"I think that gets people's attention when we have celebrity deaths. This affects everyone," says Dr. Gregory Teas, the medical director at the Center for Addiction Medicine at Alexian Brothers Behavioral Health Hospital in Hoffman Estates. "People start questioning their own behavior more. They start to think maybe they should seek help themselves."
Last week's report that Prince, who was discovered dead on April 21 in his home in a Minneapolis suburb, died accidentally from "self-administered fentanyl" quickly got the attention of politicians. A controversial amendment to a House bill seeks to increase the criminal penalties for fentanyl trafficking, while the Senate Judiciary Committee holds a hearing today about "deadly synthetic drugs."
The story of Prince, who apparently started taking opioids to treat hip pain, is not unique.
"Over 30 percent of American adults have chronic pain, and it's higher the older you get," Teas says. In 2012, U.S. doctors wrote 259 million prescriptions for painkillers, enough for every American adult to have a bottle. For Prince and thousands of others, those painkillers lead to problems.
"Most of these people don't see themselves as being addicted. They just see themselves as following their doctors' orders," Teas says.
The street drug heroin, an opioid long associated with criminal drug abuse and fatal overdoses, didn't kill as many Americans as prescription medicines did in 2014, when 28,000 Americans died of opioid overdoses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Many Americans hoard prescription painkillers they no longer need just in case that pain or a new pain arises. The dangers of prescription painkillers multiply when used by someone also taking a tranquilizer, sleeping pill or alcohol, Teas says.
"We know that opioids can help people with an acute flare-up of pain," Teas says. "But the vast majority of pain studies do not go beyond three or four months. If you're still taking an opioid six months later, we don't know if it's working or not."
Teas, one of several dozen physicians in the suburbs certified to use medication-assisted treatments such as the drug buprenorphine for addiction issues, says opioid abusers are impossible to stereotype.
"We get all ages. We get patients who will come in from their late teens to their 70s," Teas says.
The problem of opioid fatalities quadrupled from 1999 until 2014, matching the quadrupling of opioid prescriptions, even though Americans didn't report an increase in pain during that time, according to the CDC.
The number of painkiller prescriptions and overdoses also vary dramatically from state to state.
"In the last two years, there is a pattern of doctors prescribing fewer opioids," Teas says. "We're right in the cusp of a change."
In March, President Obama announced several public and private initiatives to curb the epidemic of opioid overdoses, including funding for the drug naloxone, which has been used by law enforcement officers across the suburbs to save the lives of dozens of opioid-overdose victims. Obama also created programs to warn people about the dangers of prescription opioids.
Limiting prescription painkillers in favor of exercise, meditation and other alternative, homeopathic treatments for pain are on the rise, Teas says. But Prince's death should be warning to opioid users who don't recognize their addiction, says Teas, who notes that only 5 percent of addicts seek treatment on their own.
"It's very difficult to get people to surrender their opioids," Teas says.
"It's easier to keep people off opioids than to get them to give them up later."