CHICAGO --Prescription pain pill abuse is at an all-time high. Forty-four Americans die every day from overdoses. Oxycodone, hydrocodone and morphine are in the same family of drugs as heroin. New research is now helping doctors combat this drug war.
When powerful pain killers are legal and easy to get, that's a recipe for addiction, and all too often, death.
"If you didn't know someone who could get them, they knew someone who could get them, or somebody knew somebody," said a former addict who spoke anonymously.
The pain pills work until that awful day they turn against you.
"I woke up the next morning with a chipped tooth and blood on my face sitting in a pile of my own urine," she said.
This ended her denial.
"At the rate I was going, I wouldn't be alive if I hadn't left when I did," she said.
More than a quarter billion opioid prescriptions were written in 2012. Of course, many are valid, but...
"Prescription pain medications can be a gateway to heroin use," said Dr. Martin Klapheke, UCF College of Medicine.
In fact, four out of five new heroin addicts started with prescription pain medications.
"This isn't about blaming the patient or the doctor, it's about increasing our knowledge of the evidence base," Dr. Klapheke said.
This epidemic sparked research and now doctors know there are other options.
"There are some anticonvulsants like Pregabalin, Carbamazepine, Gabapentin, there's some antidepressants actually like Duloxetine that have been shown to be effective in treating pain," Dr. Klapheke said.
Dr. Klapheke said when it comes to opioid prescription training, medical schools have long fallen short. He says we need to do much better educating young and practicing doctors about preventing overdose deaths, and about making treatment more readily available for addicts.
"It's the clinical science years that we really want to focus on now and beef up and have the students have more opportunities to apply this to actual clinical cases," said Dr. Martin Klapheke, UCF College of Medicine.
Doctors need to step up and pay closer attention.
"They have to do a urine drug screen every month when they come and visit to prove they are not on any other medication," Dr. Klapheke said.
Future doctors are becoming more aware.
"When I think about pain management I think of a very narrow range, like anti-inflammatories, Tylenol, Ibuprofen," he explained. "I think there are many other effective medications or therapies that people can try before they go to opioids."
UCF and more than 70 other medical schools have signed a pledge to educate their students.
"They already know what they need to know. It's just a matter of caring," Dr. Klapheke said.
This new effort is paying off. Opioid prescriptions already have declined by 30 percent.
Doctors and pharmacists are trying to make the drug to treat overdoses and more readily available to prevent deaths.
If you would like more information, check out the medical breakthroughs on the web at www.ivanhoe.com.