NEW YORK — Dr. Andrew Kolodny rattled off the startling statistics that grow with every passing year: More than 200,000 Americans dead from opioid overdoses since 1999 — a 900 percent increase in opioid addiction since 1999.
For those not familiar with the term “opioid” — it’s a class of drug common in the painkillers that thousands of Americans have come to rely on—Percocet, Vicodin, and OxyContin pills. And when the pills are no longer available, those who’ve become addicted often turn to heroin, a cheaper opiate that causes a similar high.
Kolodny, Chief Medical Officer for the Phoenix House treatment center, has been warning the public about prescription painkillers for years.
“We shouldn’t be putting patients on them for conditions like lower back pain or chronic headache,” Kolodny told us, after the Centers for Disease Control issued new guidelines to primary care doctors. The CDC recommended that physicians try pain relievers like ibuprofen before rushing to prescribe the highly addictive opioids.
Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the CDC, told reporters this week “We lose sight of the fact that the prescription opioids are just as addictive as heroin.”
Back in the mid-1990s, pharmaceutical companies successfully convinced doctors that drugs like OxyContin could be safely prescribed for patients with chronic pain issues.
But Kolodny’s research illustrated to PIX11 how opioid addiction started cropping up in the late 90s, with pretty much every state in the nation facing a crisis by 2009, a decade later.
Young people who experimented with painkillers in their parents’ medicine cabinets often gravitated to heroin use, after they became addicted to the pills. Heroin was much cheaper to buy, at $5 or $10 a hit.
But Doctor Kolodny—who started a group called Physicians for Responsible Opioid Prescribing—said more people were dying from overdoses in an older demographic.
“The overdose rate is actually much higher in that older group that’s getting pills from doctors for a chronic pain problem,” Kolodny told PIX11. “The age group with the highest rate of drug overdose deaths in the U.S. is 45 to 54 years old.”
Dr. Allyson Shrikhande, who works with the New York Bone and Joint Specialists—an affiliate of Lenox Hill Hospital—told us she stopped prescribing opioids about a year ago.
Although Dr. Shrikhande acknowledges opioids can be effective in acute pain situations—used three to five days post-surgery—she told PIX11 they’re not very effective long-term.
She pointed out that “anti-inflammatories, Aleve or ibuprofen” can be very helpful in pain management. She added, “Also, there are many medications that can help calm down the nerves.”
“Advil works very well for dental pain,” Dr. Kolodny pointed out, “but unfortunately, dentists are giving patients who have their wisdom teeth out Vicodin, which isn’t a very good idea.”
Doctors are also being encouraged to look at acupuncture and physical therapy as alternatives to opioid prescribing.