A Prescription for Tragedy

"Addicts will crush and inject it; they'll do anything," says Dr. Joseph Shurman, chair of the Pain Clinic at Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla. "Several companies are trying to work on a tamper-proof version, but it is difficult."

But aside from the buzz factor, the attribute that perhaps most directly led to the widespread abuse of the drug was its increasing availability.

According to data from Drug Topics, a news magazine for pharmacists, retail U.S. sales of OxyContin totalled $9.6 billion from 2000 through 2006. Moreover, it was one of the 25 top-selling drugs from 2000 to 2005, and it captured the 11th spot in 2003.

Widespread use and popularity of the drug led to increased opportunities for those with prescriptions to sell their pills -- usually for five to 10 times their normal price -- to casual users.

"Some people used this appropriately, but because of high demand, it fell into the substance abuse market because it is now worth a lot of money," says Dr. Joel Saper, founder and director of the Michigan Head Pain and Neurological Institute in Ann Arbor.

Legitimate Users Affected

While many individuals and families suffer because of the inappropriate use of OxyContin, others who need it for legitimate pain treatment may suffer from the stigma and fear that surrounds the drug.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, most people who take OxyContin as prescribed do not become addicted.

"Overall, this situation has added to the overall tone of opioid fear in this country which makes getting patients under good medical control difficult," says Dr. Michael Joseph, clinical associate director of the Children's Hospital of Los Angeles Comfort and Pain Management Program.

And it's not just the patients who have become fearful.

"Now many doctors are even afraid to prescribe it," Shurman says. "The sad part about this is that for patients, it's led to this massive chilling effect."

He says many patients who might benefit from the drug are either scared to take it, fearing addiction, or are worried about the stigma of taking a drug so widely known for its abuse. But avoiding the drug comes with risks of its own.

"The risk of suicide in these patients is very high; a lot of these pain patients have depression."

Fruit of an Impatient Culture

And some say the true problem is not the drug itself, but a general culture of overmedication and liberal prescribing habits.

"We have become an impatient culture," says Phil Bryant, associate chair for community rehabilitation programs at the University of Pennsylvania Health System.

"We want instant meals, instant responses, and instant pain relief. Instead of resolving the underlying medical or emotional issue, we often mask it with pain medications. When this becomes habitual, the individual often develops both a physiologic addiction and emotional dependence," Bryant said.

It's a dependence that headache sufferer Spector feels he narrowly avoided by seeking medical help. And he says patients and doctors alike must be more wary about OxyContin.

"I think doctors have been persuaded that it's a lot less problematic than it is," Spector says. "I don't think it's the type of drug you want out in the public."

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