If you’d like to see upfront-and-personal the face of the fastest-growing group of people at risk for opioid addiction and abuse, look in your bathroom mirror. While it may be comforting to believe that drug addiction affects mostly people who are “not like us,” the truth is a little different.
As boomer women, we are part of an increasingly expanding group of people who take painkillers for all the right reasons and follow our doctors’ instructions. The issue then, is that we may find ourselves unable to stop taking them or suffering horrible side effects.
These opioid painkillers come in a variety of forms and formulations. Some of the more common ones include oxycodone (such as OxyContin), hydrocodone (such as Vicodin) and morphine.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is significantly more powerful than other types of opioids. This drug is approved for severe pain relief, such as for patients with advanced cancer. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports it is about 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine.
How Big a Problem is Opioid Misuse?
Prescription sales of opioids in the U.S. have reached a level to where every American adult, literally, can have a bottle of these pills in their home.
What is even more worrisome is that while there has been more than a three-fold increase in prescriptions, Americans overall are not reporting more pain. If people are not experiencing more pain, why has the use of opioids increased?
A big reason for this is overprescribing by well-intentioned doctors. Another could be that previously addicted patients develop strategies for continuing their supply. These strategies include going to multiple doctors and pharmacies. And, sometimes, you may have been misdiagnosed and prescribed opioids when you didn’t really need them.
Another staggering statistic is that, according to the CDC, the number of deaths due to abuse or misuse of opioids continues to rise. To give you an example of how serious this problem is, between 1999 and 2014, annual death rates for opioids more than doubled from 6.1 per 100,000 to 14.7 per 100,000.
Despite efforts to address this opioid epidemic, the CDC reports that death rates continue to rise. Statistics between 2010 and 2014 show a steady increase from 38,329 to 47,055 annually.
We also need to consider the loss of quality of life, the expense and the emotional toll of this abuse to boomers and their families.
Looking more closely at the boomer group, the federal government reports that more than 6 out of every 1,000 Medicare patients have some type of opioid abuse or misuse. In contrast, only 1 out of every 1,000 patients covered by private insurance abuse or misuse opioids.
Data show that one-third of Medicare patients receive at least one prescription a year for the most commonly abused opioids. This is data we cannot afford to ignore.
Boomers at Higher Risk for Opioid Addiction
According to various studies, the likelihood that we will abuse opioids or take them longer than needed increases after the third day of use and rises rapidly from that point on. Let that sink in – after only three days of taking an opioid painkiller, you run a high risk of abuse or addiction.
Increasing this risk are several factors that are specific to boomers. These include the following:
We take more medications for more diseases or conditions than younger people do. In fact, we account for almost a third of prescription drug use in the United States. This increases the chances that we may make mistakes when taking our meds, which can translate into harmful drug interactions.
As we get older, our bodies may eliminate medications more slowly. This means opioids and other medications can build-up to unsafe levels in our bodies rather quickly. What may be a typical dose for a younger person could prove dangerous, addictive or even fatal to us.
Boomers may have higher rates of pain than younger people. This increases our probability of being prescribed opioids, sometimes even when we don’t really need them. Unfortunately, the more we have and take, the higher our risk of abuse or addiction.
As boomer women, we have an even higher risk of opioid abuse and addiction than do boomer men. While studies are still being done on why this is happening, initial explanations include our preference for taking psychoactive drugs to help us deal with painful life events such as widowhood or forced isolation and loneliness.
Boomer men, in comparison, have a greater tendency to use and abuse alcohol as a coping mechanism.
Some Steps to Minimize Opioid Side Affects and Addiction Risk
There are a few simple things we can do to minimize our risk of developing opioid abuse or addiction.
Talk with Your Doctor About Avoiding Opioid Addiction
Let your doctor know which prescription and over-the-counter medications you are taking. Ask if there would be interactions with the opioid painkiller you’re being prescribed. Make sure to learn about possible side effects and how to best manage them.
Limit Your Use
All research makes it clear that you should take any opioid painkiller for the shortest possible time. The ideal would be three days (the threshold for abuse and addition).
So, ask your doctor to give you the least amount necessary, use them as directed, and then move to non-opioid pain medicines. Of course, if you are battling cancer or another chronic disease, talk with your pain management expert for advice and support.
Use One Pharmacy
In addition to being more convenient, having all your medications filled at the same pharmacy makes it easier to track your use. Also, this is a simple way for your healthcare providers to know what and how much of it you are taking.
Follow Directions Carefully
Don’t mix-and-match your pain medications on your own or take them with alcohol or medications such as sleeping pills, muscle relaxants or tranquilizers. You also should not increase your dosage if you feel they are not working. Talk with your doctor first, and get their recommendation.
You should also talk with a competent doctor or healthcare provider about using minerals as a second line of defense (or as an adjunct) to prescription pain medicines.
Magnesium, for example, can be a huge help in managing the perception of pain. It has anti-nociceptive effects, which means it can keep a sensory receptor for pain from overreacting when it sends pain signals to the brain.
Spinach, pumpkin seeds, yogurt or kefir, almonds and black beans are good sources of magnesium. Another mineral to keep in mind is zinc. Animal studies suggest it may even help with opioid withdrawal and addiction.
Keep in mind that taking opioid painkillers may also remove vital nutrients from your body. So be sure to have your healthcare provider check your vitamin, mineral and other nutrient levels if you are going to be taking these medications for more than a couple of days.
Your best approach is to try non-opioid painkiller and non-pharmacological options first, and if these don’t work, then take the smallest effective opioid painkiller dose for the shortest possible time.
What is your experience with taking opioid painkillers for either acute or chronic pain? What steps have you taken to minimize your risk of abuse or addiction? Have you experienced either and how did you deal with it? Tell us about it. Please join the conversation.
Editor’s note: Nothing in this article should be considered medical advice. Always consult a doctor before making any changes to your diet, medical plan, or exercise routine.