The Overdose Issue: Narcotics and Benzodiazepines

Pain Pills KillThe recent death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman has brought to the forefront the issue of narcotic overdose. Many of the famous actors who have died of medication overdose have done so with a whole cocktail of drugs found in their system. Many have overdosed on a combination of multiple prescription medications, street drugs and alcohol. The mixture of drugs is especially lethal, since the effect of the mixture makes many drugs more toxic. A very common mixture found in overdose cases is the combination of opioid/narcotic and benzodiazepine. The source of these medications is most often the primary care provider.

Opioids and Benzodiazepines

Opioids have a very legitimate use for the management of pain. The prescription of these medications for acute pain on a very short-term basis by primary care providers is definitely appropriate. Once pain becomes chronic, pain management becomes much more complex, and the prescription of opioid medications should be in consultation with a trained pain physician. Since there are many advanced treatments for pain, the inclusion of a pain physician will reduce the over-prescribing of opioids. Furthermore, pain physicians will be able to better monitor appropriate medication use and determine early when the medications are not advisable.

Benzodiazepines are medications used for anxiety. Short-term use of these medications for anxiety is reasonable if prescribed by a pain physician. Anxiety and depression are closely related, and if the patient is depressed, treating the condition with an anxiety medication will not help resolve the feeling of depression. Ongoing anxiety is usually a sign that the patient is depressed, and a physician should prescribe a depression medication and not a benzodiazepine.

Pain and Depression

In the brain, the centers for pain and depression are next to each other and they interact with one another. Significant pain will cause stimulation in the area that controls your mood, thus, a patient with chronic pain will often be depressed. A primary care provider will often treat individual symptoms through a combination of opioids and benzodiazepines, which is safe as long as they are taken in the recommended amount. A patient may not realize the danger of these medications and may overdose if they take too much in a short period of time or in combination with other drugs.

The other main issue is that these medications are, for the most part, widely prescribed.  These medications are available in the public, and they are being traded and sold, which opens them up for abuse. A person with an addiction has easy access to these medications either legally or on the street. Better management of patients who actually need these medications will greatly reduce the amount of medication on the street. Better education of all medical providers on pain management will also help. Experts trained in recognizing pain and depression symptoms can help decrease the amount of excessive or unnecessary pills that flood the market.

The more we know, the more we can do to help keep people safe.

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Thomas Cohn, MD

Interventional pain doctor helping Minnesotans manage back, neck, foot, and other pain. Board-certified in physical medicine and rehabilitation with additional board-certification in pain management from the American Board of Anesthesiology (ABA), the American Board of Interventional Pain Physicians (ABIPP) and the American Board of Pain Medicine (ABPM).

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