The “opioid crisis” has reached elders. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, older folks are increasingly using opioids, including powerful pain pills like OxyContin, to help combat their aches and pains.
As a result, elderly Americans are at risk of drug addiction. Aproximately 20% of seniors use painkillers several times per week. For those with chronic pain, the rate of abuse or addiction is 18%.
Drug addiction often begins with a request for medication to stop pain in one’s bones and joints. But even starting on low doses of opioids can quickly turn into abuse. Why? There are several factors:
- With increasing age, the body’s metabolism slows, which gives drugs a bigger effect on the body.
- Tolerance to drugs builds up over time. This results in persons needing to take more of the medication for the same pain relief.
- Unlike street drugs, pharmaceutical pills are easy to obtain legally from doctors.
- Seniors using opioids are at a seven-fold greater risk for falls (and increased hip fractures) than those who use other pain relievers, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). These falls occur because common side effects of opioids include dizziness, confusion, loss of coordination and loss of balance.
What Are Opioids?
Opioids are natural or synthetic chemicals that reduce feelings of pain. Common prescription opioids include:
- Hydrocodone (Vicodin)
- Oxycodone (OxyContin)
- Oxymorphone (Opana)
Who’s at Risk?
There are several factors placing seniors at risk of drug addiction; they include individuals with:
- Multiple chronic health problems.
- Higher incidence of chronic pain.
- Mood disorders (depression, anxiety, etc.).
- Multiple healthcare providers and prescribers.
In addition, individuals typically:
- Insist on receiving a prescription for a strong painkiller at the first office visit.
- Shop around until they find a physician who will prescribe opioids.
- Keep doctor appointments regarding their pain but miss other doctor appointments.
- Request early refills.
- Report their prescription for pain medication has been lost or stolen.
It’s important to recognize that opioids can provide adequate pain relief, if used in the short term. For those at risk of falling, it’s critical to discuss all treatment options for relief of acute pain with health providers, including options that do not involve prescription drugs. If opioids are prescribed, it important to:
- Use them only as instructed by the doctor.
- Never take opioids in greater amounts or more often than prescribed.
- Follow up regularly with your doctor.
- Talk to your doctor about any and all side effects and concerns.
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Rein Tideiksaar Ph.D., PA-C (or Dr. Rein as he is commonly referred to) is the president of FallPrevent, LLC, Blackwood, N.J., a consulting company that provides educational, legal and marketing services related to fall prevention in the elderly. Dr. Tideiksaar is a gerontologist (healthcare professional who specializes in working with elderly patients) and a geriatric physician's assistant. Check out Dr. Rein’s professional profile on LinkedIn: http://www.linkedin.com/pub/dr-rein/6/759/592. If you have any questions about preventing falls, please feel free to email Dr. Rein at email@example.com.