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Stanford addiction expert: It’s often a "subtle journey" from prescription-drug use to abuse

Here are some frightening facts you might not know: Drug overdose death rates in the United States have more than tripled since 1990, with the majority of drug-related deaths caused by prescription drugs. And as of 2010, about 18 women in the U.S. die every day of a prescription painkiller overdose. Prescription-drug abuse, which we've written about extensively here on Scope, is a very real and pressing issue - and it was the focus of a recent Forum on KQED-FM.

Among the panelists on Friday's show was Stanford addiction psychiatrist Anna Lembke, MD, who made the important point that most people who end up addicted to prescription painkillers didn't start out "looking for a buzz" and that most doctors who prescribe the drugs are merely trying to help their patients. As she explained to listeners:

The problem with... prescription opioids is that they actually do work for pain initially... But for most people, after you take them every day for let’s say a month or more, [you] build up tolerance where they stop working so then you need more of the same drug to get the same effect and it escalates on like that. I really think the process is insidious, both for the patients who become addicted and the doctors who prescribe them. It happens in a subtle journey – when all of the sudden [patients are] using them not just for pain but also maybe to relax themselves, to lift their mood, to be able to go out to a party if they’re feeling anxious, and the doctors continue to prescribe them because they started out working, the patients were happy [and] their function improved. The dose is escalating, but they want to keep the patient happy for all kinds of reasons.

The entire conversation is worth a listen.

Previously: Why doctors prescribe opioids to patients they know are abusing them, Patients’ genetics may play a role in determining side effects of commonly prescribed painkillers, Report shows over 60 percent of Americans don’t follow doctors’ orders in taking prescription meds and Study shows prescribing higher doses of pain meds may increase risk of overdose and Prescription drug addiction: How the epidemic is shaking up the policy world

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