When easing the pain turns fatal: The big problem with opioids and anti-anxiety drugs

Prescription Drugs

By pH health care professionals

You may or may not have heard that opioid painkiller use has skyrocketed into epidemic proportions, with deadly overdoses on the rise. For example, The Washington Post reported that between 1999 and 2014, deadly opioid overdoses among middle-aged white women shot up 400 percent. But it’s not just opioid use we have to worry about. In fact, anti-anxiety drugs called benzodiazepines contributed to many of those deaths, even as much as a third of them in recent years, The Post reported.

Combining the two is especially dangerous because both drugs depress the central nervous system while suppressing breathing, your heart rate and gag reflex. The combination is even worse when alcohol is added to the mix, which has the same effect, The Post reported.

“They act like a dimmer switch on the central nervous system,” said Rear Admiral Susan Blumenthal, former U.S. assistant surgeon general, to The Post. “When taken in combination, a person’s breathing and heart will slow down, and can ultimately stop. People can go to sleep and never wake up.”

This growing problem has prompted federal agencies to step in, with the Centers for Disease Control urging doctors to reduce the use of opioids for chronic pain and warning them against prescribing the painkillers in conjunction with benzodiazepines, except for patients battling fatal diseases like cancer, The Post reported. The Food and Drug Administration also stepped up the plate, requiring warning labels on opioids and benzodiazepines about the potentially fatal consequences of mixing them.

However, some patients may get their painkillers from the family doctor and their anti-anxiety drugs from their psychiatrist, for example, while neither doctor knows about the other’s prescriptions. People may get multiple prescriptions from multiple doctors. Or sometimes, it just starts with one, but a downward spiral commences.

The downward spiral can begin after an accident, injury, or a painful health condition like lupus, migraines or rheumatoid arthritis. Opioids are prescribed for the pain, but side effects emerge, and further prescription drugs are given to address those side effects. And then there’s the issue of dependency with prolonged use, fueling more anti-anxiety prescriptions and ultimately, fatal overdoses.

This is something Coroner Manager Dawn Ratliff sees on a regular basis in Kern County, California, where she’s seen alarming increases in accidental overdoses, The Post reported. Her team comes in to try to piece together what happened, sifting through journals, text messages, medicine cabinets and interviewing friends. She’s noticed a pattern: A personal crisis leads to medication to soothe the pain, and then they lose control, The Post reported.

“They are worn down. And they can’t rise above it,” Ratliff said.

Part of the blame, she suggested to The Post, is the rise of social media, which can create unrealistic expectations about how life should go.

“Before, if you lived in a rural area, all you knew was your community,” she said. “You just knew what people in your community looked like, what their lives were like. You didn’t expect to look like a movie star — or live like one.”

Be proactive

Be proactive and talk to your doctor about all of the medications and supplements you are taking, as well as the frequency and the doses. If you have been prescribed a combination of painkillers and anti-anxiety drugs and you need a second opinion about treatment options, consider enlisting the help of a patient advocate.

Enjoy Your Healthy Life!

The pH professional health care team includes recognized experts from a variety of health care and related disciplines, including physicians, health care attorneys, nutritionists, nurses and certified fitness instructors. To learn more about the pH Health Care Team, click here.