Many Americans suffer from chronic pain. Whether this pain is due to muscle spasm, arthritis or diseases such as cancer pain medications are often prescribed. Non narcotic medications such as Ibuprofen or Tylenol should usually be started before narcotics. However, many pain sufferers are given ongoing prescriptions for drugs such as Vicodin. Problem solved? Absolutely not.

These pain medications are anything but benign. For example, the number of deaths due to overdose of prescription pain pills has tripled from 1999-2008. In 2008 over 15,000 people died to overdoses from these meds. This figure is more than deaths from cocaine and heroin abuse combined. In fact, prescription drug deaths are now the second leading cause of death caused by injury. The first cause is motor vehicle accidents at almost 40,000 per year.

Many of these deaths are unintentional-that is the person simply took too much of the drug and stopped breathing. Stopping breathing is of course not a good thing, especially if you think you are just going to take a nap after downing a few of these pills.

Furthermore, narcotics are often coupled with Tylenol (acetaminophen), which taken excessively can cause liver injury. The number one cause of liver failure requiring transplant is now overuse of chronic pain meds. Narcotics can also slow your reaction time, which is a dangerous if you are for example driving. I know this also from personal experience. A good friend of mine who was on methadone for chronic neck pain was killed after he became drowsy and accidentally drove his car off a cliff.

Chronic use of narcotics will alter your pain receptors. Pain is felt more acutely-sometimes even a small scratch can feel like a major cut. Constipation is always an issue.  Stopping these medications suddenly after chronic use can precipitate a nasty withdrawal.

Sound inviting? Consider other treatments such as massage, stretching, hot tubs, relaxation techniques and acupuncture. Try some Ibuprofen or Tylenol. If nothing works, you should go to a reputable pain specialist who can offer you nerve blocks and perhaps low dose chronic narcotics. Stay away from the “pill mills” staffed by doctors who will write narcotic prescriptions for almost anyone with beaucoup numbers of pills. These doctors are sometimes paid by the number of prescriptions that are written. Fortunately, the vast majority of physicians will not act this way.

Bottom line: Remember that there is no free lunch in this universe. Pain meds may sound good but chronic use of these pills can have some unpleasant side effects including liver failure and death.