The abuse of prescription drugs is currently an epidemic because doctors are treating pain differently now than in past years.

Drug abuse was recently referred to as an “epidemic” in a newspaper article by a Nebraska State Patrol investigator. “Clinically, it’s a very common problem,” added Aly Hassan, M.D., assistant professor of psychiatry in the University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Medicine.

The ’90s were considered to be the decade of treatment of pain, the Dr. explained. Not only was there a change in medication, but there was also a change in policy.

“An important aspect of that was to consider pain as the fifth vital sign,” he said. The other four vital signs are:

Doctors’ offices frequently have signs hanging that ask patients to rank their pain on a scale from 1 to 10. According to Dr. Hassan, this is not because people these days are weaker and can not handle the pain, it is because pain is very serious and people need to receive the proper treatment.

“The experience of pain is not only somatic. It’s not just the nerve being stimulated,” Dr. Hassan said. A patient’s vital signs are impacted by acute pain, causing a change in the person’s quality of health. However, with treatment, the vital signs become normalized.

For that reason, doctors began to emphasize the importance of treating pain, but that meant more drugs.

The drug prescribed the most in 2011 was hydrocodone, according to WebMD. However, the medical field was not too concerned about people becoming addicted to their prescribed drugs, at least at first.

“The pain patient can be treated with narcotics with little risk of developing the self-destructive behavior characteristic of addiction,” stated a 1990 report: “The Use of Narcotics for the Treatment of Chronic Pain,” by the Sacramento-El Dorado Medical Society.

In 2012, Dr. Hassan pointed out that several of these drugs have similar characteristics to other addictive drugs:

  • absorb quickly
  • the half-like of the medicine staying in your system goes very fast

“The opiates are very addictive for that reason,” Dr. Hassan said, because it makes a person want to take another one.

This puts clinicians in a bad situation because it is their job to prescribe these potentially addictive drugs. “This is beyond the level of an individual practitioner,” Dr. Hassan said. “This is really a state problem or even a national problem.”

Written by Sarah Glynn