Just last week in my office I had a discussion with a young mom about her back pain medication. Her belief was, "...the pill doesn't work like it used to, so now I need two." We had a nice discussion about the dangers of prescription painkillers, and how our bodies deal with them. As it turned out, some days she is actually taking 3 pills at a time.


Often people are confused by the word prescription. They think it means the pill has been tested and authorized to be safe. This is partially correct, but prescription simply is a fancy medical word that means "order". The doctor is giving an order to the pharmacy for the patient to get a controlled substance.

A prescribed medication is actually a balancing act of positive versus negative side effects. Your back hurts so the goal is that the correct dose of medication alleviates the pain. This is the positive side effect, the desired side effect. There are also negative side effects with every prescription drug. Some of the negative side effects may be small, such as mild constipation, others may be severe, such as potential liver damage or increased likelihood of heart disease.

This is where the balancing act comes in. Let's say you are taking a mild antidepressant. It may help by lifting your spirits a little, the positive; as well as making you a little thirsty throughout the day, the negative. Now the question for you, in consultation with your doctor is, does the benefit outweigh the negative? Are you getting more positive than negative? It is often difficult to balance all the positives with all the negatives. Unfortunately it is difficult to truly know all the positive and negative side effects of any medication we take.

New statistics from the CDC

In early July 2013, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, released new statistics concerning prescription pain killers and overdoses. the numbers were alarming.

  • Nearly 48,000 women died of prescription painkiller* overdoses between 1999 and 2010.
  • Deaths from prescription painkiller overdoses among women have increased more than 400% since 1999, compared to an increase of 265% among men.
  • For every woman who dies of a prescription painkiller overdose, 30 go to the emergency department for painkiller misuse or abuse.

*"Prescription painkillers" refers to opioid or narcotic pain relievers, including drugs such as Vicodin (hydrocodone), OxyContin (oxycodone), Opana (oxymorphone), and methadone.


About 18 women die every day of a prescription painkiller overdose in the US, more than 6,600 deaths in 2010. Prescription painkiller overdoses are an under-recognized and growing problem for women.

Although men are still more likely to die of prescription painkiller overdoses (more than 10,000 deaths in 2010), the gap between men and women is closing. This rise relates closely to increased prescribing of these drugs during the past decade. Health care providers can help improve the way painkillers are prescribed, while making sure women have access to safe, effective pain treatment.

Prescription painkiller overdose deaths are a growing problem among women.

SOURCE: National Vital Statistics System, 1999-2010 (deaths include suicides)


Every 3 minutes a woman goes to an emergency department for a prescription painkiller misuse or abuse


The CDC chart shows huge changes:

CDC advice to women

  • Discuss all medications they are taking (including over-the-counter) with their health care provider.
  • Use prescription drugs only as directed by a health care provider, and store them in a secure place.
  • Dispose of medications properly, as soon as the course of treatment is done. Do not keep prescription medications around "just in case." (See www.cdc.gov/HomeandRecreationalSafety/Poisoning/preventiontips.htm)
  • Help prevent misuse and abuse by not selling or sharing prescription drugs. Never use another person's prescription drugs.
  • Discuss pregnancy plans with their health care provider before taking prescription painkillers.
  • Get help for substance abuse problems (1-800- 662-HELP); call Poison Help (1-800-222-1222) for questions about medicines.

Read the complete CDC report


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