How Fear of Narcotic Abuse Makes It Hard for Pain Patients to Get the Medicine They Need

Oxycodone became popular as a street drug, making it harder to get this opioid pain medication at the doctor's office.
If you're suffering from chronic pain and you've found little relief with over-the-counter painkillers, such as Advil or Aleve, you may ask your doctor for something stronger. You've probably heard about opioid drugs, such as Vicodin, Dilaudid, OxyContin, and Darvon.

There's a street demand for these prescription drugs, whether obtained from pharmacy theft, unethical doctors, or addicts who fake their pain to get legitimate prescriptions. And that means that it's become more complicated to get an opioid prescription, even for patients in real need.

The rise of prescription narcotic abuse
Prescription-narcotic misuse began to climb in the mid-1990s, fueled in part by oxycodone (the active ingredient in OxyContin and other drugs). Traditionally, opioids had been prescribed mostly by oncologists and pain doctors. But OxyContin was marketed by its makers, Purdue Pharma, to physicians as being less prone to abuse and less likely to cause addiction. (The company and three executives pleaded guilty in May 2007 to overselling the drug's safety and were fined more than $630 million.)

Although OxyContin had been designed as a slow-release drug, it was soon known that it could be crushed and snorted, giving a heroin-like high. Abuse became epidemic in some areas.

When Your Doctor Won't Prescribe Narcotics
Concerns about addiction have made some doctors gun-shy about prescribing pain meds  Read more
Reacting to mounting concern over abuse, the Drug Enforcement Administration in 2001 intensified efforts to reign-in abuse and the diversion of OxyContin into the illicit drug trade.

But as the New York Times Magazine pointed out in a 2007 article, the uptick in arrests and investigations into the diversion of controlled substances (which include opioids), coupled with a lack of adequate training in pain management, can be a deterrent for legitimate prescribers. They may be fearful that investigations—even those that don't result in charges—could cost them their livelihoods. In 2007 the DEA arrested 82 doctors for crimes related to the diversion of controlled substances, and opened cases into 896.

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Last Updated: April 11, 2008

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