OUR aging population is in more pain, for one simple reason: We're living longer. Growing old and some degree of physical discomfort go hand-in-hand. What's worrisome is the avalanche of drugs Americans are taking to try to blot it out.
New studies show the use of painkillers is at alarming levels, and not just from consumers buying more over-the-counter medicines. An Associated Press analysis of federal prescription-drug data shows that the increase in the sales and distribution of five main painkillers between 1997 and 2005 came from hospitals, retail pharmacies, doctors, and teaching institutions.
The amount sold in 2005 alone was shocking - 200,000 pounds of codeine, morphine, oxycodone, hydrocodone, and meperidine (aka Demerol) - more than 300 milligrams for each American.
Nobody should be startled that painkillers don't always come from legitimate sources. Oxycodone - the drug used in OxyContin - was often bought illegally in Appalachia. And although that's why it became known as "hillbilly heroin," it quickly moved into the suburbs, putting a dent in the old assumption that most drug use is by blacks and other minorities in urban areas.
Although health professionals have long worried about consumers taking too many over-the-counter drugs, today there is as much concern about prescription drugs. What's happened in part is a big change in how doctors and patients approach pain management. These days, patients don't hesitate to ask doctors to prescribe them pharmaceuticals that they see advertised.
In Ohio, the use of oxycodone, morphine, and hydrocodone jumped as much as seven-fold. And generally speaking, as the Buckeye state goes, so goes the nation. While Ohioans are using less of some drugs, notably codeine, that's no reason to cheer.
The widespread and widely acceptable use of painkillers can lead to other risks, especially when they are not taken according to instructions. The medical profession once viewed pain as a part of the healing process, but many doctors now consider managing it as important to overcoming illness. The numbers clearly suggest the nation is being overmedicated.
Nobody is arguing against alleviating intense agony. But for most of us, putting aside the pills and accepting some modicum of discomfort might be less painful in the long run.