For the last two years, I’ve focused on my life—including writing almost 60 “Know Your Neighbors” columns over that time.
For the last two weeks, I’ve been focused on pills, heating pads, halting movement, great events I can’t attend, napping and television-cooking shows, thanks to acute arthritis in my lower back and right hip. Really, the last two weeks have been about one thing: pain control.
One of my ex-husbands (insert your own joke here) had serious back problems after a major auto accident. He was diagnosed with compression of several vertebrae, had a steel rod inserted, and was told that no further surgery would help his situation. He was then in his 50s.
Through a network of doctors, none of which knew of the others, my ex managed to get enough prescription medicines to alleviate the pain—because the prescribed dosages were never enough. By his 60s, he had developed a tolerance and needed ever-higher doses of Oxycodone, an opioid and one of the most abused prescription drugs out there.
Opioids are narcotics designed to interfere with the pain impulses sent to the brain and spinal cord. Prescriptions direct how many pills one should take, and at what intervals, but they may also allow “as needed” usage to cope with what is known as “breakthrough pain”—those flare-ups that occur even when taking prescribed doses. Also: According to WebMD, about 20 percent of us over the age of 12 use prescription drugs for nonmedical purposes, which has led to addiction and medical emergencies in alarming numbers.
What’s a person to do when in pain and needing relief? You start with aspirin or ibuprofen or some other over-the-counter medicine. You may go to the doctor and get a prescription for a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID), perhaps combined with a pain reliever. What if, after all that, you’re still in pain?
This was the situation in which I found myself. My normal NSAIDs weren’t working. Heat creams and patches were no help. I couldn’t sleep because there was no position that was comfortable. No matter how I moved, my back, hip and leg were screaming. I could think of nothing else.
I don’t know about you, but whenever I’ve had a procedure, a root canal or a minor surgery, whatever pain relievers I’ve been prescribed are seldom used up. What’s left gets pushed to the back of my medicine cabinet, without regard for those “expires after” dates. (I always rationalize that the dates are probably arbitrary, based on the profit motive to sell more pills.)
Most of us aren’t even sure what those leftover bottles contain, and we may avoid taking them because we fear addiction. WebMD says, “For most people, the initial decision to take prescription drugs is voluntary. Over a period of time, however, changes in the brain … affect a person’s self-control and ability to make sound decisions. While this is going on, the person continues to experience intense impulses to take more drugs.”
I don’t have an addictive personality—I do not abuse alcohol, and I would never consider sticking a needle in my arm. I took “uppers” in my 20s when I was studying and working 18 hours a day, but I didn’t like that clenched-jaw feeling. I’m also concerned that the long-term use of these drugs can cause kidney failure, heart problems, withdrawal symptoms and even death. Then I think about my ex, who spent so much time making sure he would have enough pills around; his need for them kept increasing until his death in his 70s. His life became about nothing but escaping pain—and the thought of that scares me.
Some people worry that relying on artificial means to control pain somehow connotes weakness. (“I can handle it!”) Others fear becoming one of those addiction statistics. Yet others believe that pain is somehow enlightening or inevitable. However, dealing with pain is what these medications were designed for—to relieve pain and to prevent it.
So last week, I found an old bottle of opioid pain pills I had pushed to the back of the medicine cabinet. After taking two pills, I was finally able to get some sleep. After a few days, although I was experiencing fatigue as a side effect (hence the frequent naps), my back and hip were much relieved. I was able to stand up straight and walk without bending over, and I was able again to do some normal, everyday things like cooking, laundry, returning emails. I began to fully appreciate why people rely on these drugs.
I stopped using the pills after several days. Frankly, I got tired of feeling tired. My hip is still letting me know it’s not happy, but I can now function relatively normally. If the pain comes back, I will consider getting a refill.
If you have leftover pills and want to avoid even the temptation to abuse them, ask your pharmacist how to dispose of them. Drug stores may be willing to take them. DO NOT throw them down the toilet. Don’t toss them in the trash unless you have made them unusable; the FDA recommends they be crushed, with capsules emptied, and then mixed with something undesirable like kitty litter or coffee grounds. If you have concerns about addiction to any medication, there are local organizations that can help—find one before you destroy your life.
You get to choose how to handle your situation, but you also have the responsibility to minimize the damage that can occur if you are careless. When my grandchildren come to visit, I’ll put all those leftover prescriptions in a safe place, and I would never give them to a friend, let alone a stranger, whose reactions I could not possibly predict. But I must admit that I will keep them, and I will use them again if needed.
I don’t believe pain is either enlightening or inevitable. It just really hurts.
Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal,” and her radio show airs Sundays from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on KNews Radio 94.3 FM. Email her at Anita@LovableLiberal.com. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.