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Fri, Oct. 18

ON THE RISE: Prescription drug abuse- the hidden epidemic

There's an alarming drug problem in Arizona that may surprise you: prescription drug abuse. Even more surprising is the fact that prescription drug abuse is widespread among people of all ages:

• Slightly more than 11 percent of adults surveyed reported they had used prescription drugs without a doctor's consent. Almost half of those had misused prescription drugs in the previous 12 months and 13 percent reported misuse in the past 30 days. Adults ages 60-69 had the highest rate of misuse among current abusers. (Arizona Substance Abuse Partnership, 2010)

• Sixteen percent of young adults (ages 18-28) said they had used prescription drugs without a physician's consent. (Adult Substance Use in Arizona 2010, Southwest Interdisciplinary Research Center, Arizona State University)

• Yavapai County has the 4th highest rate of prescription pain medication misuse in the state among its youth. (Arizona Criminal Justice Commission)

What are the prescription drugs of choice among Arizonans who say they have ever abused these medications? The most popular are prescription pain relievers (e.g., Vicodin, OxyContin, Percocet or Codeine); followed by sedatives (e.g., Valium, Xanax, barbiturates or prescription sleeping pills). The smallest percentage reported misusing stimulants.

This increase in drug abuse has been labeled a "hidden epidemic" by national public health leaders. In November 2011, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that deaths from prescription pain relievers had surpassed motor vehicle accidents as a cause of death. The CDC also found a fourfold increase in the quantity of prescription pain relievers sold in the U.S. in the last decade. In Arizona, more than 50 percent of controlled substance prescriptions written in 2011 were for opioid pain relievers, primarily hydrocodone (e.g., Vicodin) and oxycodone (e.g., OxyContin).

How does prescription drug abuse begin? There are many paths to this kind of drug abuse. For some people it begins with painkillers that are prescribed after injury, surgery or as a way to address chronic pain. Prescription drug abuse among young people can start by taking prescription medications they find in their home medicine cabinet. Two factors amplifying the prescription drug abuse problem are:

• Social acceptance of prescription medications; and

• A misperception that prescription drugs are safe, even when they are being misused.

Controlled substances are highly addictive both physically and mentally. People can begin taking these drugs as prescribed, but eventually begin to abuse them. As their tolerance for the drug increases, they take larger amounts in order to recapture the feeling of euphoria they had when they first started taking the opioid.

Arizona is paying a hefty price for this hidden epidemic. Opioid-related abuse cases in Arizona hospital emergency departments increased nearly 11 percent between 2008 and 2011. Consuming large amounts of these drugs can affect the respiratory system and liver as well as slow motor functions.

In addition to the cost in health and human life, there are other burdens associated with prescription drug abuse. The CDC estimates that prescription pain relievers cost health insurers up to $72.5 billion annually. Drug abuse also leads to crime.

While controlled substances can play an important role in the management and relief of chronic pain, it is critical for people who are taking these medications to use them properly. Pain medications should be taken as directed by the prescribing physician, and then carefully monitored by that same physician in order to avoid the serious and potentially fatal consequences that can result from prescription drug abuse.

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