Lethal connection: Pain pills and addiction; how quick can it happen?

Doctors are changing how they manage pain for their patients

Drug Addiction, Heroin, Suicide Generic


YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio (WKBN) – The heroin epidemic in the Valley has risen to a crisis level, so much so, that Congressman Tim Ryan is calling on President Trump and Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price to declare a Public Health Emergency.

Overdose deaths are escalating – 189 overdoses resulting in 26 deaths in Trumbull County just last month.

While addiction is rampant, most users don’t start off using heroin, fentanyl, carfentanil or any of the other narcotics that first responders see on a daily basis. Many addicts begin with a prescription for pain medication, gotten legally through a doctor’s office, typically for a minor injury, according to Dr. Varlas, a specialist in emergency medicine.

Varlas says it can take just two weeks of taking pain medication to become addicted. Opioids bind with the pleasure centers in the brain very easily.

“There is a change in the body that starts adapting and starts requiring it,” Varlas said.

Trying to get off pain pills will come with symptoms much like the flu – fever, stomach pains, and heart palpitations. Many will try to relieve those symptoms by finding another source of narcotic – typically street drugs.

Varlas says heroin is a popular route because it is so cheap, but he says there is no consistency in the drug, and users don’t know what they are getting. According to the Journal of Pharmacology, heroin is approximately two to four times as potent as morphine.

“You never know what you are going to get in that batch. You don’t know what they are putting in that batch of heroin. That is why we are seeing problems all throughout the state of people overdosing,” Varlas said.

Last month, Ohio Governor John Kasich signed a law that limits the amount of pain medication doctors can prescribe for short-term pain. Adults can be prescribed seven days of pain pills and children and be prescribed five days. Varlas says the legislation is a step in the right direction and doesn’t compromise care, as some critics say, because there are many different ways to manage pain rather than prescribing opioids.

“There other categories of medication that aren’t addicting that can help with pain. There are also other types of therapy, such chiropractic and physical therapies,” Varlas said.

The state has started the Ohio Automated Rx Reporting System (OARRS) database where every pharmacy is required to submit dispensing data at the end of each day. This is a safeguard to make sure patients aren’t getting too many painkillers for short-term pain.

WKBN 27 Investigates will host a live discussion panel on the heroin epidemic. The event is scheduled for Monday, April 24 beginning at 7 p.m. The discussion will be broadcast live and will be live streamed on WKBN.com.

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