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Jewish World Review Feb. 1, 2002 /19 Shevat, 5762

Lenore Skenazy

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Consumer Reports

Don't suffer do drugs -- LAST week, my friend Joan had a hernia operation, which means that she was sliced open, stitched up and sent home with a handful of painkillers - which she didn't take.

Howling agony seemed preferable to the peace her doctor had prescribed. Why? "I was afraid I'd get addicted," says Joan.

This is a myth so prevalent - even among some medical doctors - that it must be addressed before Joan or anyone else suffers one more pain-racked night. Or day. Or life.

"There is a deep-seated belief that mere exposure to [a narcotic] causes addiction," says Richard Chapman, a pain researcher at the University of Utah School of Medicine. "But there is no good evidence for this. There are about 23 million people who have surgery every year, and we just don't see people who have had their gallbladders out going out onto the street trying to buy drugs."

Study after study has shown that when people take drugs to relieve pain, that's all that happens: pain relief. When the pain goes away, so does the desire for the drug.

This is true even among people with long-term or chronic pain, says June Dahl, a pharmacology professor at the University of Wisconsin. "People can be on a particular dose of drugs for years without needing an increase," says Dahl.

When they do need more, it's generally because the disease - say, cancer - has progressed, and so has the pain. Now, it is true that anyone who abruptly stops taking a narcotic will experience the miseries of withdrawal - but this is not a sign of addiction. It's just a normal bodily response, explains Bill McCarberg, director of pain services at Kaiser Permanente in San Diego. People will go into withdrawal even if they stop taking something as innocuous as blood pressure medicine or antihistamines.

So whence comes this notion that narcotics will corrupt anyone unfortunate enough to pop a few pills after surgery or a sprain? The pain docs blame the media.

"Any supermarket tabloid will yield a story about some star who has gotten addicted to painkillers and says, 'I'm a victim! I became addicted!'" says Chapman. "But this is absurd, because millions of Americans take [painkillers] without becoming addicted."

Generally, the addled star "is somebody who abused alcohol and a whole variety of substances [before] and now blames the doctors," Chapman says.

Another fear-inflaming factor is the country's anti-drug campaign. "Nancy Reagan's policy of 'just say no' made patients believe that if you ever take one pill, you're going to get hooked," says McCarberg. "So instead of just saying no to drug dealers, they started saying no to their doctors."

What a sad mistake! Here we are, lucky enough to be living in a time of safe, proven painkillers, yet millions of agonized Americans are afraid to take them.

When it comes to doctor-prescribed drugs, my pain-racked readers, just say yes.

JWR contributor Lenore Skenazy is a columnist for The New York Daily News. Comment by clicking here.


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© 2002, New York Daily News