February 22nd, 2012
02:15 PM ET

Dr. Sanjay Gupta: The truth about prescription medication addiction

Whenever I hand a prescription for pain pills to a patient, I tell them, “Remember not to drink any alcohol when taking these medications.”

For years, we in the medical community thought that simple message was getting through. It turns out we were wrong.

Every 19 minutes someone dies because of misuse of prescription medications. Sometimes it is because they take too much. Many times it is because they forget or ignore the warning their doctor gave about combining the medications with alcohol. And tens of thousands of people die every year as a result.

As much attention as we pay to illicit drugs such as cocaine or heroin, the truth is prescription medications kill more people in this country than those illicit drugs combined. Perhaps it is a perception issue: “It came from a pharmacy, therefore, it must be safe.”

They certainly can be safe, but they can also be incredibly addictive, with more than 1.9 million Americans hooked on prescription pain medications alone.

These painkillers are particularly dangerous because they depress the central nervous system, slowing down breathing and the brain stem’s responsiveness to CO2 to the point where someone abusing these medications can simply stop breathing. Combine these painkillers with alcohol, another depressant, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.

Researchers are racing to find something that can help, and there are a few promising things in development. A recent study, the first large-scale trial aimed at painkiller dependence, offered some hope.

Almost half of those addicted to painkillers - 49% - were able to reduce their drug abuse when taking Suboxone for at least 12 weeks. The drug works by reducing withdrawal symptoms and relieving cravings.

Unfortunately, the success rate dropped to less than 10% [8.6%] once patients stopped taking the drug. In the study, patients receiving intensive addiction counseling did no better than those who didn’t.

Naltrexone – sold under the brand names Revia and Vivitrol, an injectable, long-acting formulation – has also been used for prescription painkiller abuse. But naltrexone only has the potential to work in patients who are already off the painkillers long enough that the drugs are out of their system.

Truth is most of the researchers I have interviewed over the last decade all seem to agree on one thing: addiction is a brain disease. The latest science shows how the dependence on drugs or alcohol can change the brain chemistry, altering pain and reward centers. As a result of this latest science, the idea of therapy alone to treat addiction is waning.

I should point out that millions of patients use prescription pain medications every year safely, without becoming addicted, and certainly without dying. For nearly 30,000 people a year though, they pay the price with their lives.

As a doctor, I will look my patients in the eye every time I hand them a prescription to tell them the concerns about the pills they will take. It won’t just be a casual reminder about not taking the medications with alcohol, but a forceful warning backed up with scary but forceful statistics. I will remind them that they could become addicted, and they could die. That is our jobs as doctors, and it is one way to save thousands of lives.

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  2. Elaine

    Hi Im a female and Im 45 years old. I've been having problems with tolerating medicines that are given to me by doctors. It does not matter for what reason they are given to me. My body can not take any of them. The first time was maybe 5 years ago or more I dont remember. My doctor gave me a med for my high blood pressure. it was the kind that takes out the water from your body. Within 30 to 40min i was dehydraded to a point that i could not lift my head up without feeling like i was going to pass out. my heart rate was like i was running a marathon. When i was taken to the ER after suffer a whole day. The ER doctors were shocked that I waited that long to come in cause they thaught cause of my heart raising i was having a heart attack.I knew that it was the medicine cause that is what i took in the morning and all hell broke loose. The ER specialist could not understand why this happened to me so she spoke to a science prof. I quiess who deals with meds. She told him what happened to me. He told her there are few people like me that my body responds to meds within 30 to 40 min which in most people that same med might respond over a week. Through out the years I've been very careful and letting my doctors know but it is very hard for some to understand what happens to me and they still give me a med and tell me i will be alright and then i end up in the ER again. Just a year ago I caught a virus and i took a total of 4 to 5 Tynol and i ended up in the hospital cause my liver enzymies went up and they said it was from the Tylinol. They gave me the reverse Tylinol serum and that was choking me and I thought I was going to swollow my tongue. They told me to just be pastient and deal with it. But I was deing from this medicine that they were putting in me. Finally, a doctor told them that that they can mix it into the IV flood which will make it a little easier for me to handle. It felt the same but a little lighter not as horrible when they gave it in full. I went through hell and at the end they could not figure out why my liver was damaged or why my blood was poisened. I spoke to a liver specialists and he didnt think it was the Tylynol nor he knew what had happened to me. When i told him that my body is very sensitive to any meds he said then maybe even with a little dose of Tynol it damaged your liver. Just Two day ago I got sick again with a virus and my doctor told me to take Anibotics. I told him that i had some left over from last year and I took one and I felt like i was going to pass out and feel sick to my stomach. I asked if he can give it in a lower dose. He laughted and said that is the lowest i can give you. I told him my problem with meds. cause Im sure he doesnt remember everyone patients problem he said go ahead and take it nothing will happen. Guess what I ended up calling the ambulence because i did not want to pass out infront of my children. I when to the ER and explained my problem. They gave Me IV flood and meds to keep me from vomiting and something to relax me cause i was so scared of what if i had something more serious then this and if i can take a med that will save my life because it might kill me anyways terrifies me. Please, Please help me. I need to know where to go who can i talk to about my problem.

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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.