Life Without Vicodin Will Be OK, Doctors Say


For 22-year-old Jacob Rosenberg, life without his daily dose of Vicodin wouldn't be much of a life at all.

"Before I began taking narcotics two years ago, I would spend my days in bed," said Rosenberg, who has suffered from fibromyalgia and rheumatoid arthritis for five years, and chronic pain for 10. "I was in college and I wasn't capable of doing anything – go to classes or go out."

"But since I've been on Vicodin my pain is 80 percent diminished," said Rosenberg. "It gives me the ability to be a normal person."

Rosenberg is one of millions of Americans who fill prescriptions each year for an acetaminophen-based narcotic – or combination drugs – such as Vicodin or Percocet, the two most popularly prescribed drugs in the country.

But patients like Rosenberg are worried that the solution to their pain may soon be unavailable to them after an expert advisory panel for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration voted earlier this week to ban combination drugs.

The panel's vote came after days of deliberation over ways to reduce the liver damage risk associated with acetaminophens. The panel also voted to keep over-the-counter combination pills containing acetaminophen on the shelves and lower the maximum dosage of these pills.

The panel voted 36 to 1 to recommend a "black box" warning for prescription medications that combine acetaminophen with another drug.

"It's completely unfair to take these drugs away from us," said Rosenberg. "Without them you can't act like a normal person."

Experts Say Hope Is Not Lost Without Combination Drugs

But medical professionals disagree, and say that those suffering from chronic pain will not be left without medication should the FDA decide to heed the advice of the panel.

"There are a lot more drugs out there than are being used," said Dr. Charles Kim, a pain management specialist at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York.

"I would tell patients who are panicking over [this vote] to relax, it doesn't mean they're going to take pain medication off the market completely but just that they're thinking about changing certain prescribing patterns to increase safety," said Kim.

More FDA regulation on prescription combination agents as well as more labeling of over-the-counter acetaminophens could help reduce the number of unintended overdoses, according to Dr. Eugene Viscusi, the director of pain management at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia.

Because nearly 42,000 people visit emergency departments each year with acetaminophen overdoses, half of which are accidental, eliminating drugs that aren't clearly labeled to have acetaminophen in them could decrease this number significantly, said Viscusi.

"The problem is not just with prescription narcotics," said Viscusi, "It's their use in combination with over-the-counter drugs."

Eliminating combination drugs would result in patients being able to treat their pain with two different pills, rather than just one. While some may see this as an inconvenience, Viscusi said he's hopeful it might lead to increased awareness about what patients are actually ingesting.

"This would be the best thing," said Viscusi. "If you're taking the acetaminophen separately from your opioid then you know exactly what you're taking."

And as for patients who say nothing else will ease their pain but the acetaminophen-based narcotics, Viscusi says there are other drugs that can help them.

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