5 Things We Learned About The $300 Billion Painkiller Industry

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Relieving pain isn’t a simple issue of taking a pill and feeling better. It’s a complicated cornucopia of treatments ranging from over-the-counter remedies to holistic healing to prescription medications, with some $300 billion a year spent each year on painkillers in the U.S. alone.

Treating pain is also risky business, with studies showing that consumers often aren’t aware of what’s in the over-the-counter medications they take, resulting in deaths from something as seemingly innocuous as kids-formula acetaminophen.

At the same time, there is growing concern about the overuse of prescription painkillers, with Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently urging doctors to give some thought to how generous they are with their prescription pad, saying that the overprescription of opioids is a “key driver of America’s drug-overdose epidemic.”

In the current issue of Consumer Reports, our colleagues take an in-depth look at the current state of painkiller use and abuse. Here are just some of the key takeaways:

1.) Prescription painkiller overuse and abuse is rampant: Every day, more than 1,000 Americans are treated in emergency rooms for misusing opioid painkillers like Percocet and Vicodin.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 14,000 Americans died of overdoses involving prescription opioids in 2014 alone.

2.) Addictive drugs can hijack your brain: Because our brains are hardwired to seek pleasure and avoid danger, CR reports that patients using painkillers are more susceptible to becoming hooked on the drugs.

As many as one-in-four people taking a prescribed opioid for several months or longer struggles with addiction, according to the CDC.

3.) The federal government is finally taking notice: In March, the CDC issued its first-ever guidelines to physicians for prescribing opioids for chronic pain. The advisory suggests doctors consider non-drug and non-opioid medications for these patients, before resorting to opioids.

When opioids are the only option, the CDC recommends doctors only prescribe the lowest effective dose possible.

Additionally, the Food & Drug Administration has created an initiative aimed at curbing inappropriate prescriptions of the drugs. The plan includes changes to the regulation and approval of opioid drugs, along with new, more apparent warning labels.

4.) Over-the-counter pain medication has its own problems: According to CR, about 17 million Americans take either one aspirin, ibuprofen, or naproxen each day for pain relief. While these medications may not contain opioids, they continue to pose threats to one’s health.

Taking too much or taking them too often can cause bleeding in the intestines, kidney failure, heart attacks, stomach ulcers, and stroke. Aspirin may cause stomach bleeding even at low doses.

Medications like Advil and Aleve can actually trigger headaches if you take them more than a few times in a week.

5.) A cool sensation is not the same thing as cooling: There are plenty of over-the-counter creams and patches that, when applied, result in a warming or cooling sensation. But CR says it’s just the result of inflammation from either capsicum (used in warming products) or menthol (used in cooling treatments). It’s a distraction from your pain, but is it actually doing anything?

“There’s little evidence they actually address the underlying pain,” explains CR, “though some people still might find relief. This isn’t the same as using ice, which can reduce inflammation.”

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