Earlier this year the VA clinic in Tomah garnered national attention after whistleblowers exposed practices of over-prescription of opiates for patients leading to the death of at least two vets. Last week, a number of 'heroin summits" were held around the area to inform people about the ever-growing presence of the drug in our communities. And next week, law enforcement agencies across the state will be taking part in a giant prescription drug drop-off effort--where thousands of pounds of unused pills will be collected for disposal. At what point in these on-going investigations, conversations and eradications do we talk about the fact that we Americans take way too many painkilling pills?
In the Tomah controversy, it had become the accepted practice for nearly any patient complaining of discomfort to be prescribed painkillers. If the whistleblowers are correct, doctors were overwhelmed with veterans seeking treatment--and writing out a prescription to make pain go away--rather than do a full diagnosis to determine the cause of the pain became the quick and easy route. Unfortunately for at least two vets, those doctors didn't keep track of what had already been prescribed--and they ended up dying.
Last week's heroin summit in Fond du Lac had the title "It doesn't start with heroin"--and they are right. The majority of users didn't wake up one day and say "Hey, I'm going to start using heroin!" They didn't have a needle passed to them by someone at a party or outside of a bar saying "Hey, Man, you gotta try this stuff--it's awesome, Man!" Most users were actually addicted to opiate-based painkillers--but once their doctor cut off their prescription, they had to find a cheap and available substitute to get their fix.
Meanwhile, many painkillers will be going into the collection boxes at those drug drop-offs next week. Pills that were prescribed for common injuries like a backache, a sprained ankle, a broken wrist or maybe a knee that "just doesn't feel right". And part of the reason that we need to have these drug drop-off days is because the aforementioned heroin addicts would have no problem going through your garbage or breaking into your house to steal them.
While it would be easy to blame doctors for the "here are some painkillers, now get out of my office" practice of medicine that is becoming so prevalent--they are only giving the patients what they want. For some reason, we as a society have decide that no one should ever experience any physical discomfort at any time. Much of that is due to the aggressive marketing of prescription drugs that can relieve the symptoms of any malady you can imagine--or imagine that you have in some cases. So patients come to the doctor's office now with the full expectation that they should leave with some pill to guarantee a "cure". "Ask your doctor is such-and-such drug is right for you!" hits home for a lot of people.
I flat our refuse to take any kind of painkiller--even asprin or ibuprofen. I was prescribed painkillers once--but I never filled the prescription. I was playing softball one night and lunged to make a play on a ball to my right. I felt something pull in my back and the muscles immediately seized up. At the doctor's office the next day, he had me try to bend over as far as I could and he made me walk across the room on the heels of my feet. After about two minutes of "examination" he said it was probably a pulled muscle--and he gave me prescriptions for an anti-inflammatory and for Vicodin. As fate would have it, this visit to the doctor's office came less than a week after Brett Favre had his emotional "I'm addicted to Vicodin" press conference--so when I saw that on the prescription note I knew there was no way I was taking that drug. Instead, I just gutted it out--and made sure to do more stretching exercises and weight lifting for my back to strengthen the muscles.
Perhaps if more of us were reminded that some pain is a part of life--and that the old-fashioned practice of "gutting it out" might be the best medicine--we could make some real headway in the fight against heroin and painkiller addiction. Ask you doctor if living with a manageable amount of pain is right for you--and society.