Three Tips to Protect Yourself From the Deadly Epidemic You're Ignoring

The COVID-19 pandemic is taking up most of the news headlines.

But there's a dangerous epidemic most folks are ignoring... the opioid epidemic.

For years, we've covered the growing problem with these dangerously addictive drugs. But it turns out, thanks in part the COVID-19 pandemic, the problem is getting worse.

A recent Washington Post article found that in May, opioid overdoses jumped 42% compared to the same period last year. Some places have even seen an increase of more than 50%.

Not only is the COVID-19 pandemic making it more difficult to treat opioid addiction, but it also makes it much easier to get your hands on these dangerous drugs.

Telehealth has seen a massive increase over the last several months as patients forgo in-person doctor's visits in favor of a video appointment. When I was practicing medicine, I would never write an opioid prescription for a patient without seeing him in person. But that's exactly what doctors are doing today.

And, like with COVID-19, those among the most at risk for unnecessary prescriptions are seniors.

Seniors are more likely to report pain from underlying conditions. But they won't get drug-free solutions like yoga for back pain. And they're less likely to get non-opioid painkillers. Doctors simply write another opioid prescription. They believe that seniors are at lower risk for addiction or side effects.

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As we wrote in 2017, the number of seniors hospitalized for opioid problems is continuing to rise. In the past 20 years, the number's skyrocketed five-fold. Now with the COVID-19 pandemic, folks are reporting long-term problems, including pain. We're concerned this opioid epidemic will soon explode.

That said, we're revisiting our three tips to use when talking with your doctor about opioids. We hope these empower you to make the right decisions for your care.

1. Ask about other options for pain relief. We've written extensively about other pain-management techniques, including yoga, massage, and meditation. (You can read the full issue on back pain here.) Deep breathing also helps lower stress and alleviate tension and pain. Make sure to investigate every possibility before taking an opioid.

You can even consider combining these therapies with a low dose of opioids. Not only will it keep your intake low, but it may help you taper off and quit taking the medication altogether. Check with your doctor about how slowly you should wean yourself off. Different strengths and types of opioids have different recommendations, so make sure you know exactly what to do and when to do it.

2. Have a contract for opioid prescriptions. The contract is a monitoring method some doctors have started to use. It involves things like:

  • Renewing prescriptions in person only 
  • Pill counting and tracking
  • Only one doctor may write any opioid prescription for that patient 

Unfortunately, when some folks get addicted to opioids, they "shop" around. They get prescriptions from multiple doctors. So making sure only your primary care doctor is the one approving your medications is another step toward safety.

When you get the prescription, be up front with your doctor. Talk about any family medical history of addiction (including alcohol). Create a monitoring plan together. Sharing that accountability will help.

3. If you can't manage the pain with short-term opioids, see a specialist. Opioids work best only for short-term use. If you have chronic pain like chronic lower-back pain or fibromyalgia, opioids may bring minimal relief over time. Seeking out a pain specialist could be a better option for you.

Furthermore, if an elderly parent gets a prescription, consider a memory screening. Even early memory loss makes folks forget if they took their pills, which sometimes leads to overdose.

Remember too, folks without a diagnosed mental illness still struggle with dependency, so ask your doctor to refer you to a psychological provider if needed.

Opioid addiction and death are a major problem. But reducing the number of prescriptions has only just started to help. Take control of your own life and educate yourself on what to do. Make a plan and be accountable. Don't let yourself or your loved ones fall victim to this continuing epidemic.

What We're Reading...

Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
July 21, 2020