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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.


soundoff (367 Responses)
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    August 8, 2012 at 00:23 | Report abuse | Reply
    • patt

      Thanks a bunch for all the new pain rx regulations. The only one who has benifited is my ins co. I pay $7 co pay for 1 month and $14 for 3 months so 1 md visit and 3 mo pain rx costs $ 19. Mow I pay because I can obtain less pills at one time 2 md visits =$10 and 2 drug co pays =$14 which is $24 for 1 month. So for 12 mo instead of $76 I now pay $288 or more. I am a 69 year old RN with severe spinal stenosis hoping for surgery but need the pain rx to function and yes I still work. So thanks a lot how about educating people on how to take their meds. Every time I obtain a new rx I have to speak with the pharmisist and the bottles are labeled not to - while on this rx. Don't people listen or read.? How about a new class for chronic pain pts so our costs will decrease. Perhaps a 3 md panel .

      December 3, 2012 at 14:33 | Report abuse |
    • Roger

      I agree with patt so much. I'm 67 and have degenerated disks in my spine. The pain would be constant without the 5 MG of Oxycodone I take. As it is now, I can not stand in one place for any length of time, Oxycodone or not. The deterioration of my spine is due in no small part to my care of my wife of 50 years who has MS and who needs my help getting up out of her recliner onto the electric wheel chair onto the toilet or bath and back and forth again all day 24/7. My options are to have nerves in my spine cauterized one side at a time until they find out which side is causing the problem. Then I am told that the procedure would last six months at the most at which time it would be done again. I live in the State of Florida where pain killer use is discouraged so much that I have to go from pharmacy to pharmacy to find the medication unless I can find a sympathetic Pharmacist who will make a call to find out who has them in stock. There is no sympathy for those with chronic pain here. It is almost like I am a criminal for having pain as I grow older.

      December 14, 2012 at 09:48 | Report abuse |
    • William Ashley

      Dr Gupta, my late wife was given 6 different anti depres drugs along with sleeping pills, she consequently had multiple suicide attempts from overdoses, lastly she went to the indoor gun range bought a 38 revlr returned to her van in parking lot and shot herself in the chest, and survived with only a collapsed lung but died over a year later againt possibly from an overdoes of Effexor, I found her deceased in her bed while try to reach the phone at the foot of the bed. Her death was ruled a suicide. Please help us to hold these irresponsible doctors accountable. Now my 3 daughters will not have their mother for the rest of their lives due to the ignorance and stupidity of her doctors.

      December 8, 2013 at 09:08 | Report abuse |
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    August 16, 2012 at 23:28 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. fred

    The absolute best thing to do to stay healthy is to STAY AWAY FROM DOCTORS! The ultimate drug pushers

    August 24, 2012 at 07:50 | Report abuse | Reply
    • JD28

      Fred you are absolutely correct. Think about it the government took cigarette ads off the air. Why? Because they are influencing people to smoke. Why doesn't that theory apply to prescription drugs that are killing citizens and the drug are signed, sealed, and approved by no other than the government. The power of suggestion is unbelievable and weaker, vulnerable, and to some degree uneducated people believe the nonsense spewed by doctors, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies and worst of the US Government.

      January 17, 2014 at 09:03 | Report abuse |
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  6. Sue K

    My son & daughter in law are doctors on Long Island & are are running out of gas for their cars & will not be able to get to the hospital to help care for patients. The stations with electricity have no gas & the ones with gas have no electricity. If they wait on a line, people will die. Can you help?

    November 1, 2012 at 05:25 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Benny

    youre a plagiarizer why should we believe you? who wrote this puppy for u bub?

    November 15, 2012 at 01:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Hmmm

    Suboxone also causes addiction, sometimes worse than the drug you were trying to get off. I think he should have mentioned that...

    November 15, 2012 at 06:38 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Hammilton

      It can, but generally if you're already addicted before you start on Suboxone, that's not an issue. Those who abuse Suboxone haven't been addicted to other opioids. Most research suggests that those addicted to other opioids will feel nothing from suboxone.

      November 15, 2012 at 22:54 | Report abuse |
  9. Amber Wright

    My father was a prescription addict from the time I was 12 until his death at 82. The doctors just kept prescribing for him, passing him on to other doctors. I believe the medical profession has been criminally involved in this epidemic for decades.

    November 16, 2012 at 11:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Alyissa Chenoweth

    I think you need to STOP criminiliizing use of the ONLY medication most people can take to relieve chronic pain. Opiates should be taken AS PRESCRIBED ONLY and if addicts die, perhaps personal responsibility should be taken into account. I for one know many older people who would live horrible painful lives if they did not have access to high quality pain medications and they've never overdosed because they read the labels. It's that simple. DO NOT get in the way of the only medication we have for pain just because human error causes some American's to feel they need to step in and control everyone because someone in their life didn't control themselves. PERIOD.

    November 17, 2012 at 16:42 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Chad Peterson

      IIn the early 90's, while rock climbing in Maine, I took a bad fall and seriously hurt my back. I had emergency surgery and while I was paralyzed for 7 days, on the 8th day feeling returned below my waist. While I will never be the athlete I once was, I can walk, and have full use of all my bodily functions. The downside is that I have permanent nerve damage and backpain that is never going to get better. Depending on a variety of conditions, my backpain can range from slight background pain I hardly notice to taking an hour to get out of bed in the morning if I can make it at all. While I have been offered various pain injections, because of where they need to inject me, there is always a slight risk and potential of incurring more spinal damage and of course recently, many pain injection users have been infected with a nasty virus from a contaminated batch of injections. I refuse to risk that.
      So yes...I use hydrocodone. Lortab, specifically. It has saved my life. Without them I would be unable to work and provide for my family. I would not have a house...a car...I would another hard luck case on disability sucking on the teat of society until I finally died and someone else took my place.
      The issue is how you use your pain meds. There are some people who just ingest what is given to them and never bother to learn about what they are taking. I advise anyone who is on prescription pain medicine to regulate how much they take and when. Do not take more that prescribed even if your pain level is higher. To prevent addiction go at least 48 consecutive hours without them if you can, at least one time a month. Maybe a weekend you don't have to work...try taking an OC pain med instead during that time. If you use them responsibility...give your body a chance to flush them from your system on a regular basis...you can use them safely. I have been using the same dose for almost 7 years. It can be done.

      November 19, 2012 at 12:20 | Report abuse |
  11. sciencefirst

    A.C. For the most part I agree with you. A serious breakdown in the chain, are the recipients of the narcotics. They need to be taken correctly & SECURED in ones home. Young people who "party" with Rx meds, are most likely abusing other substances too. Require patients to be informed of the potential dangers & to safe-guard their meds. Some of these cases are older adults choosing to take their lifes.
    All this media attention on"accidental" deaths, pushes the Pharm boards to increasingly restrict the prescribing of pain reducing meds. Some MDs are becoming gun-shy. In a decade we will see a rise in accidental death by street drugs & guns.

    November 18, 2012 at 21:21 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. shea

    as a former prescription drug abuser, this hits home for me. I got addicted to painkillers when I was 19 after breaking my arm. I abused strictly percocet and vicodin for 4 years until after a car accident where I realized how close to death I have been on so many occasions. it became second nature 2 pills a day just for a buzz. drinks at night with friends... pills in my system even weed anything to enhance it. Then the day came when I realized all it did was slow me down. I watched friends die and their families fall apart. Ive been sober 6 months now, and I would never wish this on anyone. All I can say is, take care of yourselves. If you're depressed, anxious, whatever; Get help before its too late.

    November 19, 2012 at 21:31 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Shelby

      I wish I could say I am a former prescription painkiller addict, but the truth is.....I still am one. I can't get off them alone. At age 23 I was told my lower back pain was being caused by degenerating and herniated discs in my spine. We tried epidural injections, physical therapy, basically tried everything you are supposed to before resorting to major surgery. In June 2009 I had my spinal fusion at L5/S1.....the surgeon told me that the disc they removed was completely calcified! Since my spinal fusion, pain has only gotten worse and actually spread over my whole body pretty much (neck, shoulders, rib cage, mid and low back, sometimes buttocks, and of course hips, knees, ankles and feet all hurt too). After my spinal fusion, my pain management doctor suggested trying out a neurostimulator (basically an implanted TENS unit), which seemed helpful at first, but for me it doesn't interrupt pain signals as much as it just kinda vibrates me around so the pain is not completely constant. Right now it's out of service because I had stopped using it for so long. I've tried what seems like all the commonly prescribed painkillers like Percocet, Darvocet, Vicodin, and others I can't remember from 7 or more years ago. I am currently on 50mcg Fentanyl patches changed every 48 hours (After a short period of time, 72 hour changes were too long and I was in so much pain before I would be able to change the patch, that is why I change every 2 days instead of 3 now, and even that is getting hard to do. I can make it about 36 hours now before I can't function mentally because of the pain). I am also prescribed 4 x 350mg Soma every day and 4 x 5-325 Vicodin every day. It's the Soma and Vicodin that I am mentally addicted to. I like the high, but I have been able to go several days without it (when I run out before I can refill my Rx) and know I can survive without it, but it's like my sick brain won't let go of how good it feels when they kick in. As for the Fentanyl patches, there's no high there. I'm just physically addicted to them and will begin experiencing withdrawals if I don't change them regularly. The withdrawals from Fentanyl have been so bad, I've had to go to the ER to get my vomiting under control. And as if that's not enough, I also have digestion issues–frequent acid reflux, frequent nausea, frequent constipation and when you combine all three, it's enough to send me to the ER again! Right now, my stomach feels like it has rocks or something in there. It hurts and the slight anxiety is not helping. Anxiety and fear of others' judgments of me keep me from getting the help I so desperately want and need! I really just need someone to take me to rehab or something because I know no matter how much I want this, my fears are keeping me away. I need help, but it won't happen for me unless someone forces me into it because I don't have health insurance or a job to pay for my rehab. I want it so badly, but feel so ashamed and my inability to pay for this help embarrasses me even more. Only someone with severe anxiety issues will probably understand me. My general anxiety is so bad, I'm almost agoraphobic!

      April 28, 2014 at 08:26 | Report abuse |
  13. drrondaultonjr1

    This is such a difficult thing, especially when talking about pain medications. So many people need help, but the risk of addiction and even worse is so great. It seems that natural alternatives should be considered just to avoid the side effects. Even something as simple as Ibuprofen can have serious side effects if you investigate it. http://www.healyourbulgingdisc.com/ibuprofen.html

    November 22, 2012 at 21:00 | Report abuse | Reply
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  18. leejcaroll

    Most pain patients do not become addicted to their opiod medications. They may develop a physical dependence which is a very different animal, addiction being defined by craving and a compulsion to have the drug as well as well as willingness to do whatever one needs to, including going outside the law, to get the drug (or substance)
    Most pain patients do not enjoy the sensation of cloudiness, dry mouth, feeling groggy, etc. They take these medications because they have either not responded to anything else (or a need to add them to the treatment(s) being already employed or there is nothing else that can be given.
    I have yet to see an article that breaks down how many of these incidences of death/overdosage is the result of taking one;s own prescription or people using them illicitly having stolen them or bought them on the street.

    Carol Jay Levy
    author A PAINED LIFE, a chronic pain journey
    Women In Pain Awareness Group, Facebook
    Blog: The Pained Life, 30 years, and counting.
    accredited to the U.N. Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities member U.N. NGO group, Persons With Disabilities

    November 25, 2012 at 18:54 | Report abuse | Reply
  19. Shine

    Hi Dr. Sanjay Gupta,

    This is probably the last chance I tell you and CNN. I hope you read this email and take this email seriously. From my experience, I know that American news media are skeptical. Because of their skeptical, Alzheimer's patients will have NO HOPE. They believe that only American doctors/researchers can find cure for Alzheimer's diseases. I tell you that giving them another 100 years, it is guaranteed that they cannot find cure for Alzheimer's diseases. Treatment NOT= Cure.

    I am sure if I tell you that a medical researcher in China has already successfully achieved Reverse Aging, you will say, "It is impossible" because you and CNN are skeptical. However, that is true, 100% true. That researcher was born in 1964, right now, she looked as when she was 32 years old. If you see her, you might think she is 20 years younger than you. This is not a joke. It is not plastic surgery, laser/IPL treatment, or Botox injection.

    The medical treatment she invented not only can CURE all the wrinkles from head to toe, give people a 30 years younger appearance AND health, it can cure most of aging-related diseases, including varicose/spider vein, flat-feet, memory loss.

    Since this invention can cure most of aging-related diseases, don't you think, logically, it can cure Alzheimer's? Of course, it can. It says most likely this invention can cure Parkinson's diseases, too.

    The inventor said, "Free Radical Theory is False; Alzheimer is a type of aging-related memory loss, aging-related memory loss is mainly caused by blood-clots, people have thousands of micro-blood-clots; Antioxidant Food cannot reverse aging, that is misleading. Laser/IPL treatments remove wrinkles by destroying veins/capillaries. Plastic surgery, laser/IPL treatments can cause more blood clots, more American people will experience early memory loss. That is for sure."

    Einstein is not the only great inventor in the world. You can be skeptical, but I ask you to read the ALL the 100+ pages before making skeptical judgment. If you insist on being skeptical, one day, it will proof that being skeptical can end people's life. However, be open-minded can save people's life.

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    IF YOU DON'T READ THE 100+ PAGES listed in the index table, you are skeptical.

    December 22, 2012 at 20:55 | Report abuse | Reply
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  22. Rusty Winburn

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  23. david becker

    Dr Gupta is correct addiction is a brain disease- and the most addicted members of society are doctors who are too morally and mentally lazy to obtain education in pain care. In NYS in 2011 more prescriptions were given out for opioids then there are NewYorkers- Doctors wish to blame patients for such- the simple truth is that patients dont force any doctors to do anything.

    June 20, 2013 at 09:42 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. AMIT

    I got really bad habit of sleeping infact i cant hear the alarm and i am in such a profession when sound sleep is not tolerated and i got many warning of coming late to work what is the reason and cure for this

    July 2, 2013 at 17:50 | Report abuse | Reply
  25. Theresa

    DOCTORS.............THEY ARE THE REASON FOR THE SEASON HERE......i was given Lortabs like candy from physicians for pain that probably only required Darvon or Tylenol...I was NEVER told the ramifications of this medicine and didn't even know what it was when i began to take it, TOTALLY UNAWARE of "ADDICTION, BOTH MENTALLY OR PHYSICALLY, MUCH LESS , A CHANCE OF DEATH TAKING THIS MEDICATION" ...BECAUSE I WAS NOT TOLD BY THE NUMEROUS DOCTORS I SAW AT A HOSPITAL IN ALABAMA....so after i became "addicted...while raising my 2 children, and realized on my own , Ive got a problem here.....i went so far as to Call the same doctors and even administration at this particular hospital and said to them..."I NEED SOME HELP" ! Their Reply ? Sorry, we don't have a "detox" here and beings you have no insurance to begin with, I doubt you will have any success in obtaining any type of help getting off the thousands of pills WE have prescribed you through out 5 yrs!!!!" AND THEY CONTINUED TO WRITE SCRIPS WITH REFILLS....So Not in so many words did they say this verbatim but might as well have because that's what it came down to...so then my addiction landed me in prison for 2 yrs and drug court for 4 yrs due to me "breaking the law" just so i would NOT be so sick, when running out, that i could not support my children and instead , laying in the bed filling like i am gonna DIE! So now, many Years later........i am a productive , law abiding citizen, addict!! Still on pain meds for real medical reasons this time, or am I? I depended on these educated doctors 20 yrs ago , for a proper accurate diagnosis, appropriate care to take care of the medical issues i had at the time, and instead I BECAME AN ADDICT! THANKS SO MUCH FOR THAT!!! HOW DARE YOU HYPOCRITES ! YOU GIVE IT TO US, YOUR PATIENTS, ALL IN THE NAME OF MONEY......then you have the AUDACITY to BLAME US? THE PATIENTS, YOUR PATIENTS....we yell Ouch....and you throw us a bone.....a deadly, addictive, white watson Demon and then BLAME US! PFFFT WHATEVER.......I KNEW 20 YRS AGO, THIS WAS AND STILL IS, A PROBLEM, THANKS TO ALL THOSE BONES YOU THREW US FOR BASICALLY NOTHING AND NOW YOU WANNA DO SOMETHING? REALLY? SHOULD'VE, COULD'VE, WOULDN'T DIDN'T! TOO MUCH MONEY FOR THE PHARMACEUTICAL COMPANY'S AND IN RETURN.....AMERICA PROSPERED AND BIG POCKETS GOT BIGGER!! DOCTORS RUINED MY LIFE AND AFFECTED MY CHILDREN TO A DEGREE THAT I HAVE GUILT EVERYDAY FOR THE THINGS THEY HAVE SAW AND HAD TO ENDURE THEMSELVES.....SHAME SHAME SHAME! AND ITS A LITTLE TOO LATE! REALLY?????

    October 25, 2013 at 10:16 | Report abuse | Reply
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  27. Concerned mum

    My daughter is 4 and has regular contact with her dad, however today he admitted to me he has been taking and is addicted to subutex. (not as a heroin replacement) It started as a way to kurb his depression and is now hooked. I understand that this is his 1st step to recovery but admitting his problem and seeking help. I dont want to cause him any more stress but I'm uncertain what to do about our daughter? He ensures me he has never used while he has had her in his care, but surely he"ll be put on a programme to wean him off. Am i right to want to limit my daughter being around this? We still have a close relationship and i want to help him but feel until he is stable in his recovery contact between them should be limited? Is this going to affect his ability to look after our daughter?

    December 9, 2013 at 19:12 | Report abuse | Reply
  28. Name*va

    I do not understand why the people that need pain meds the most are going to suffer the concise because of pill heads. please people of the ones that od, they knew what could happen when they took the pills, alcohol, and what ever else. STOP BLAMING THE DOCTORS!

    December 10, 2013 at 02:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  29. Bell

    If there is free legal help please help me? This Person can pay it! I was helped after I lost every thing! Is just nobody would ever say this about a person like this...

    December 31, 2013 at 07:42 | Report abuse | Reply
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  34. annie

    "I will remind them that they could become addicted, and they could die." <-– this phrase may save lives, but you're gonna get a whole lotta people in the ER after their first dose because they just had a panic attack thinking they're about to die. I suffer from anxiety, and when my tonsils became inflamed my doctor put me on antibiotics. After reading the warning labels I took one and called 911. LOL!! It's silly... but it really wasn't funny at the time.

    June 20, 2014 at 16:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  35. Jay Murray

    This article really touches the problems I have in my life and wish my doctor would of warned me befor I started taking my first prescription of pain killers my life has never been the same 5 years later I am a pain pill addict and have overdosed 3 times last time being yesterday and was almost fatal I hope the best for all who suffer threw my disease and pray that other being prescribed pain killers will be warned befor it is to late god be with you all

    July 23, 2014 at 09:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  36. donna

    oxycod/apap 3-325mg twice daily,diazapam 15 mg twice daily,lyrica 50 mg three times a day fluoxetine 40 mg once a day.dr. given how do I take that much with other meds and how far apart

    October 12, 2014 at 01:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  37. lori

    We just moved to Redding, CA. My husband has been trying for three months to get into a pain management doctor. He finally got an appointment but only got to see the NP. She would not refill his rx. He has been in high doses of opana and xanax. He will be out in 6 days. He has an appointment with a GP in 20 days and an app with his cardioligest in 30 days. He is freeking out. What do we do? He has been on these meds for almost 10 years

    December 7, 2014 at 13:15 | Report abuse | Reply
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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.