The Digest recently posted a story about a research study on the increase in the occurrence of knee osteoarthritis among older Americans. The gist of the story was the increasing numbers of people who suffer from chronic knee pain related to obesity and participation in sports. Many of these people wind up managing their conditions through the use of various types of medications, including prescription painkillers.
These people become part of a rapidly growing number of people in the United States who use and abuse prescription painkillers. A recent story by the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reported that the number of people dying from prescription drugs has reached epidemic levels. The CDC cited information showing that over 15,000 deaths in the U.S. in 2008 could be attributed to reactions from prescription drugs.
Other studies estimate that about 30,000 people in the U.S. died in 2010 from abuse of prescription pills. In the state of Florida alone, where authorities have begun to crack down on so-called “pill mills” some 2500 deaths in 2010 were attributed to prescription drug abuse.
In May of 2011 the White House issued a press release calling the abuse of prescription painkillers a public health epidemic. The release stated that more people are now dying from prescription pill abuse than from the black tar heroin epidemic of the 1970s and the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s combined.
At the heart of the disaster is the powerfully addictive painkiller oxycodone, which comes in various brands – OxyContin, Roxicodone and Percocet. It is a legitimate therapy for those in great pain but has spawned a generation of addicts and, in turn, attracted crooked doctors who massively expanded the prescription of the drugs in up to 200 pill mills, most in southern Florida.
A recent story in the English newspaper The Guardian on this topic quoted Sheriff Rick Bradshaw of Palm Beach, Florida as saying, “There’s a culture that’s taking hold among teenagers that because a doctor prescribes these pills they can’t be bad. Kids don’t have the fear of pharmaceuticals that they do of illegal drugs.”
Eleanor Hernandez is a former painkiller addict who was able to find help. She now runs a Florida group Narcotics Overdose Prevention and Education – Nope. Together with the American Society of Interventional Pain Physicians it is battling to persuade the state to introduce a monitoring database that would allow police and medical authorities to identify where the oxycodone is coming from, and in turn identify and shut down the pill mills. Though Florida is the epicenter of the oxycodone epidemic, with 98% of all the nation’s doctors who handle the drug located here, astonishingly the state has no comprehensive database recording prescription histories.
Even more astonishingly its recently elected governor, the Tea Party favourite Rick Scott, has blocked the introduction of a database on grounds of cost.
That makes people like Karen Perry see red. Her son, Rick, began taking prescription painkillers as a senior in high school and died at age 21 of a cocktail of prescription painkillers and illegal drugs. Referring to the governor’s stance she recently said, “Cost! For heaven’s sake! What is the cost of a human life?”
The police are even more baffled. They point out that Florida’s lack of regulation has allowed the pill mills to flourish.
This is a crisis that anyone working in the field of sport cannot ignore. Young people, including athletes, are among those people who are most susceptible to this problem. In May, 2011 Aaron Douglas was found dead on the balcony of a condo unit in Fernandina Beach, Florida after a night of partying. A subsequent autopsy indicated the presences of prescription drugs in his system along with alcohol and other substances. Douglas was a football player and likely starter in 2011 at left tackle for the University of Alabama football team. He had been named a freshman All-American while at the University of Tennessee in 2009 before he transferred to a junior college and then enrolled in Tuscaloosa in January, 2011.
Anyone working with athletes and with young people has to be aware of the dangers posed by abuse of these drugs, which often can be easily obtained legally through physicians. Supply networks are not unlike those for illegal performance enhancing drugs such as steroids.