Each and every day, 46 Americans die from the same cause.
That's nearly 17,000 lives lost in one year. All of these deaths are completely preventable.
I'm not talking about a dangerous new virus, out of control bacteria, or exotic disease.
The problem is an accidental overdose of prescription painkillers called opioids, synthetic versions of heroin, opium, and morphine.
Since 1999, deaths from these medications skyrocketed by more than 400 percent.
And studies show that the risk of dying from any cause is almost 90 percent higher among people using opioids than for individuals using NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) for pain relief.
With some of these medications, only two pills – yes, just two! – could cause a fatal overdose, or land you in the emergency room, along with half a million other patients every year.
These perfectly legal, FDA-approved drugs, taken by millions of Americans, are now the most commonly prescribed medication in the country.
And fatalities aren't the only downside.
Patients on opioids are nearly five times more likely to
break a hip, wrist, arm, or pelvis when compared to those on ibuprofen, according to a recent study of nearly 13,000 arthritis sufferers.
Sadly, that's not all. The same study found that patients taking opioids were more than twice as likely to suffer a heart attack as those using NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs), like ibuprofen and acetaminophen, for pain relief.
In addition, these drugs depress your immune system, making you vulnerable to all sorts of infections.
The problem starts with familiar names like Vicodin, OxyContin, Percocet, codeine, morphine, and the new kid on the block, an especially potent, sustained release version known as Zohydro ER.
Some of them combine a familiar ingredient, like aspirin or acetaminophen, with hydrocodone, a synthetic narcotic.
These drugs should never be mixed with alcohol or other medication that contains ibuprofen, acetaminophen, or aspirin. Doing that can result in an overdose.
If any of these symptoms occur in an individual taking opioids, call 911 immediately:
Unclear or disordered thinking
Breathing problems or slower than usual breathing
Slow heartbeat or the sensation that your heart is fluttering or "jumping"
Sleep so deep the individual cannot be awakened
Opioids are commonly prescribed for broken bones, post-surgical pain, and to ease discomfort caused by cancer.
Although they're intended for short-term use, patients can become psychologically and physically dependent. Experts say many doctors aren't aware of the addiction potential, so they fail to warn patients.
The problem has gotten so bad that experts estimate about 2.5 million Americans abuse these drugs, particularly OxyContin, every year. That's more than double the number of heroin addicts in this country!
As a practicing physician, I know how difficult it can be to live with chronic pain. But opioids are not safe and should only be used as an absolute last resort for serious pain that interferes with the activities of daily life.
The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has tightened restrictions on some of these products. But we'll have to wait and see if this latest move reduces the epidemic of overdoses and addiction.
In the meantime, protect yourself from these risky, dangerous drugs with non-toxic pain relief.
When a patient comes to me in pain, my first recommendation is curcumin, an extract of the spice turmeric. Often, pain is caused by inflammation, and
curcumin is a recognized inflammation fighter, with studies proving its ability to relieve pain.
I tell my patients to take 500 to 2,000 mg of curcumin daily. For best absorption, look for a product with enhanced bioavailability.
Omega-3 essential fatty acids (EFAs) are another pain-easing option. These good fats fight inflammation and lubricate joints, a common source of pain. I recommend a daily dose of 1,000 mg of purified marine oil.
And don't forget about non-pill pain relief. Try homeopathy, acupuncture, self-hypnosis, massage, meditation, stretching, and gentle exercise, like water therapy or yoga.
Some of these safe, natural methods have been used for centuries. They're time-tested, harmless to your liver and other organs, and there's no worry about addiction, problems driving, or combining them with an occasional glass of wine.
If your physician offers you a prescription for pain relief, please discuss the situation first. Ask about addiction potential, side effects, and safer alternatives.
There are times when prescription pain relievers may be necessary. But these drugs are best used as a short-term solution. Pursue healthier, non-addictive alternatives for the long run.