Doctors in America have, either by not reading the small print on the bottles, or ignoring the warnings sent out by their professional colleges, led thousands of their patients into become drug addicts. They think they are doing good by prescribing strong pain killers, but last year there were more deaths from prescription pain killer overdoses than there were deaths from road traffic accidents.
The habit of doctors prescribing more and more pain killers is coming to the UK. In 2017 over 22.75 million prescriptions for them were written by doctors working for the NHS
Doctors are making patients into drug addicts? Think I’m joking? Keep thinking. We all think we know what a drug addict looks like: like that chap you see on the way to the station wearing a dirty jacket; he’s usually got a dog with him. He’s skinny because he clearly doesn’t bother eating. Sometimes he asks you for money in an obsequiously polite tone and calls you Ma’am or Sir. Sometimes he’s simply passed out on the pavement.
Yet what about that friendly person you often see, sitting opposite you on the train, or in the café grabbing a quick coffee, clearly on her way to work? Yes, she sees her doctor regularly but what’s wrong with that?
Well nothing is wrong with her. But something is badly wrong with her doctor. He has arranged for that poor lady to be addicted to sleeping tablets.
Did you ever have trouble sleeping? Maybe it got bad enough that you asked your GP for sleeping tablets. If you saw a good doctor, you might have found the experience a bit annoying. Did they go on and on about sleeping in a dark room, bed time routines, not having a telly in your bedroom and then send you home empty-handed? If they did, then that was a mark of excellent clinical care.
Karen’s doctor didn’t. He thought he was being nice or maybe he was a bit busy that day and wanted to move Karen along. Maybe he was ignorant or simply out of date. But the upshot was he gave Karen a month of sleeping tablets (Valium, or ‘mother’s little helper’) even though all doctors know it only takes three weeks or less for someone to get stuck on them. After all, Karen had just suffered a bereavement, her husband aged 33, dying of leukaemia.
At the time, Karen really ‘needed’ those sleeping pills and she was grateful for the sympathy and continuing care she received from her GP. And, by God, that care has continued, because now she’s stuck on them. Yes, that perfectly nice lady that you see every day with the coffee has to visit her GP every 28 days and beg for a new batch; otherwise she suffers withdrawal symptoms from her sleeping tablet addiction.
Sleeping tablets are one thing, perhaps for those anxious sorts, but Bob is not one of them. He’s your builder and you know that he’s a decent chap. He helped you sort out your garden wall that time after a storm. But there was that time he broke his leg. Naturally it made sense to give him strong pain killers until he was healed and mobile again. Once the pain settled, he could easily stop taking the tablets.
Except that he didn’t. He still gets ‘pain’ from his completely healed leg and he has made an arrangement with his GP to pick up strong pain killers every two weeks as long as he stays on a stable dose. He probably doesn’t even think he is addicted. After all, he only takes what the doctor gives him. But this cycle of use and withdrawal, mistaken by Bob as pain and only relieved by the use of more pain killing patches, is a classic symptom of addiction.
Anyone who has tried a strong pain killer such as an opiate – a version of heroin – (and I have, after a fall from a horse), knows the warm and cosy, insulating, lovely feeling it gives you. That’s the quality of the drug. Snow White would get addicted to opiates if you gave her them. Cinderella, the prince, the ugly sisters; they would all get stuck on opiates if their doctors prescribed them.
Perhaps you think I am exaggerating; but in America, women are dying from prescription pain killers at an unprecedented rate – over 10,000 a year, four times more than from cocaine and heroin combined. More have died of prescription drug overdoses than from car crashes. America has had to announce a strong pain killer epidemic and declare it a national emergency; and the UK is heading in the same direction with everincreasing prescriptions and patients being dosed up on opiates in the A&E departments of NHS hospitals.
We have always known that strong pain killers are addictive. We have realised sleeping tablets are addictive and we are now starting to realise that even those fancy new modern medications for pain are addictive; these are all drugs of abuse. And who knows what else is out there dressed up as a kind friendly medication, something to shut you up and hurry you out of the GP surgery to save the doctor time.
Watch out for those addictive drugs your doctor dishes out. If you don’t want to become the latest tablet sucking zombie, constantly asking for more, be very very cautious if your doctor offers you a new tablet unless you want to risk the Big Sleep.
Berenice Langdon is a GP and the author of Learning Microbiology through Clinical Consultation OUP. Highly commended by BMA Book Awards 2017
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