MONTGOMERY, Ala. - Prescription drug abuse continues to be a major problem throughout the country, but especially here in Alabama. We lead the nation in the number of prescriptions for narcotic pain medicines, and we also have one of the nation's worst rates for deaths from overdose. That's why the state is cracking down on doctors who over-prescribe opioids to their patients. But even that effort is creating yet another drug-related problem.
Millions of Americans live with chronic pain. Whether it's the result of an injury or illness, you probably know someone who relies on various pain medications to get through their day. Well now, efforts to curb prescription drug abuse are making it harder for people with a legitimate need for the drugs to get them.
“We had 762 deaths due to overdoses, many of these involving prescription drugs" according to Dr. Tom Miller, Alabama State Health Officer.
Miller describes Alabama's prescription drug abuse problem as an epidemic. He's part of a growing effort to limit the availability of narcotic pain relievers in Alabama. But on the other side of the issue are chronic pain sufferers like Lee Walden. He relies on those drugs to lead a reasonably normal life.
“I haven't had a decent night's sleep in the last six months,” says Walden. He adds, “My medication has been cut 5 times from what I was originally being prescribed."
Walden says he's a victim of the state's efforts to combat drug abuse. He says doctors are increasingly reluctant to write the prescriptions that he and others like him need to control their pain.
“My family doctor wrote me some medication to help me until I could get in with a new pain doctor, and the medication I’ve been taking, she wouldn't even prescribe. She said I’m scared they'll shut me down. I’m not going to lose my license,” Walden says.
A member of the Alabama Board of Medical Examiners, Dr. Jerry Harrison says we have to change the way we look at taking pain pills.
“You cannot make pain go away. Life is not pain-free and pain medicine, in and of itself, will never eliminate pain,” Harrison says.
"If they could show me a way to function in a normal way without it, I'd be more than happy to do it. 'Cause I don't like taking it. But it keeps me going," Walden explains.
Walden tells us saying pain meds won't cure pain is like saying insulin won't cure diabetes. Dr. Harrison tells us at no time has the medical association told doctors not to treat pain. He says it's quite the contrary, they encourage doctors to treat pain aggressively, but sensibly.
The bottom line is while the state has a legitimate need to control the flow of prescription drugs, there are those who have a legitimate need to take them on a daily basis. And these are the people who are caught in the middle.