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 (477 Responses)
  1. Name*Kay Ash

    I'm 63 yrs. old suffering from spinal stenosis, severe arthritis, chronic pain throughout my body. I've had multiple back surgeries, the last back surgery I had to beg the doctor to perform as he was reluctant to do so because the arthritis has deteriorated my spine, I have osteoporosis. My hands are deformed due to the arthritis my feet & toes, my cervical spine all the way to my lumbar. I'm on disability.My life is not enjoyable at all. What I can tell you Percocet only takes the edge off the pain, it doesn't make me totally pain free & doesn't make me high. It's inhumane for the DEA/Government to dictate to doctors what meds to prescribe to patients like myself. What little quality of life a patient has is removed when Percocet isn't provided.The majority of patients taking pain meds realize the risks, I realize the risks. My life isn't worth living if I don't have pain meds to remove some pain as I know I'll never be pain free. If I die taking pain meds then so be it. It's my choice! Our government has no right to dictate what pain meds or any meds a doctor prescribes. There is a doctor patient Privacy Act, guess that doesn't exist. Government/DEA has no right to interfere with medications a doctor prescribes to patients. Again if I die so be it, people die in car accidents, plane crashes. Are we going to outlaw cars & planes? DEA is out of line. Are they paying doctors not to prescribe pain meds? If I can't have a remotely pain free life I have no desire to live. And it's my choice! Radiation & chemotherapy can kill patients is it going to be deemed illegal?

    November 14, 2017 at 18:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Benjamin

    I'm so sick of the absolutely bogus vomit you and other doctors like you spew on to people every day. The truth is. Noone has had any bit of my pain medication but myself. Whether others have problems with misuse is zero my problem. And why should it be. Why should we chronic pain sufferers like myself with legitimate vasculitis and other complications of an autoimmune disease, be first prescribed them by you brilliant doctors. Then told to suddenly get off them with no warning and no assistance as if for some reason we are criminals. Tell your stories of epidemics and misuse to the people that are actually misusing them. And tell them to parents of high risk teens. I was cut off cold turkey from Percocet because everyone is scared to lose their license. How is that fair. And what type of epidemic would you now risk. Should I run to the streets for heroin now? You have no idea the impact of your misinformation and utter propagation of half truths is to people. I was told in fact that it's not really the people already taking their meds correctly that is the problem. It's people that are thieves or people who are just plain dumb to be taking something that is not at all safe for them. So get your stories straight and thank you and your cohort of liars for doing far more harm to patients than you could ever imagine doing.

    Best Regards,


    December 14, 2017 at 03:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. Ina Almario

    How's your day going?


    December 17, 2017 at 14:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. SEO

    I enjoyed reading what you had to say. Some very valid points! Great arguments.


    December 24, 2017 at 13:45 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Name W B

    I think this is so right my question I ask , why don’t Dr talk w/ family member to see how some of those people having to go to pain management are doing in home and on the jobs, rather that keep give the ppl 3 prescription at a time? Just word of concern!!

    January 10, 2018 at 14:15 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. kracker55

    Good old Dr Gupta sparing false information to create fear when the truth is that people that take to many Ned's are either under medicated and are trying to kill their pain or intentionally take to much to commit suicide because once again the establishment treats pain patients like junkies. The few that abuse the system should not dictate the care needed by true pain patients. To many Dr's are not taking responsibility for not doing their job and blaming the patient

    February 8, 2018 at 08:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Holly

    It didnt take us patients long to find out About the happy pills so next then you know ive got a headache.They worked on evertything when i was little and then 20yrs later and im usung pills about my real back shoulder pain.I get no rush of anything anymore i have a tolerance so no fun at all.i just know the pain starts burning in my neck then the hands cramp.then its time to radiate down my leg

    May 8, 2018 at 07:43 | Report abuse | Reply
    • KayLynn

      I understand the dangers are real and must be addressed but I personally was labeled and profiled as a drug seeker and finally found a Dr who actually listened to me, looked at and SAW me, and recognized that I was in a severity of pain that was becoming a desperate situation. For 7 months I saw several Drs & was in the ER several times. The only thing I asked for was a diagnosis, which would have been an MRI. I was told to my face that I don't have symptoms to order an MRI and I would not be given narcotic pain medication. I have no idea what makes these people, -yes, just people who happen to have some type of medical degree or education in the field,- think I have lived in this body for 53 yrs and have had musculoskeletal problems due to serious injury 20 yrs ago that I don't know my own body. I'm now being treated for serious nerve injury and hopefully I won't be permanently disabled. The absolute disrespect and mistreatment, never in a million years did I think I would suffer a serious injury then be abandoned by the medical community. The hardship and pure fear I have been put through is a disgrace and if I am lucky enough to get through this even just good enough, I'll be the one asking the questions, I'll be the one interviewing any medical professional I have contact with and if I don't like what I hear and examples of competency, I will go to the next potential provider. I'll never trust the Health System again and will check and double check before I choose my healthcare professional again. I pay their salaries and hopefully I'll get some of my money back.

      July 20, 2018 at 02:34 | Report abuse |
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  9. Rosy

    Perhaps doctors should take narcissistic personality more seriously and run a quick test for it before prescribing any pain drug. These people become addicted to anything just to get attention. In short they are drama queens. I have very poor health and have taken both opiates and non narcotic tramadol which is my choice now. Quitting months of fentanyl was unpleasant and required a klonopin at the worst point due to some restless leg symptoms but that is expected. I never drug seek with tramadol and have gone off and on many times. It is not "an extremely potent opiod" nor physically addicting. I have taken 600 mg for nearly a decade and just stopped no problem. The demonization of ultram is a myth propagated by the same criminals responsible for the opiod crisis. Tramadol should be a first choice among people with chronic pain that are not drug abusers of course. Dont carry water for the oxycontin and fentanyl pushers. Tramadol is not physically addicting the science was in long ago.

    September 20, 2018 at 13:12 | Report abuse | Reply
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    With doctors overprescribing painkillers – beginning in 1992 and hitting a peak in 2012 – the question is why? The answer can be found in Big Pharma, which has deceived, lied and mislead those in the medical profession, and the general public, about the fact that their drugs can and will become addictive and deadly.

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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.