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Illustrated by Moy Zhong.
Illustrated by Moy Zhong.

A pill-popping pandemic

Prescription culture affects adolescent health, happiness

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lthough people might not be able to fully verbalize the pain they are in, the physical signs are clear. They could writhe in their beds, moan in agony. Even the stoic cannot help the occasional grimace.

All of these actions are symptoms that can clue one person in to another’s suffering, according to verywellhealth.com.

Everyone has a different threshold for pain, but the one similarity is that once they reach it, they will seek a way to tame it.

Dating back to 3,400 B.C., humans searched for ways to soothe discomfort. Mesopotamians found the milk sap of a bright red poppy could subdue pain, induce, sleep and even “calm crying children,” according to history.com.

Later, the flower that the Mesopotamians nicknamed “the joy plant” was discovered to be the source of the addictive drug, opium.

After two Opium Wars involving the British Empire and China, the U.S. Congress urged the ban of opium in 1905, and the dangers of the substance became evident. Since then, scientists continue to work to formulate less fatal and addictive painkillers.

While eventually producing the generally safe, over-the-counter prescriptions people take today, past attempts left scars in history. From a morphine hooked population after the American Civil War to the extremely fatal drug, heroin, research suffered many setbacks, according to history.com.

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) is the typical painkiller: including common types such as Aspirin, Ibuprofen and Naproxen. This category of drugs is the most widely used in America, with sales of more than 70 million prescriptions and, likewise, 30 billion over-the-counter tablets sold annually, the American Nutrition Association said.

In Columbia Public Schools, nurses are only allowed to provide painkillers to students with a doctor’s permission; however, students themselves are able to bring medicine from home, RBHS nurse Tammy Adkins said.

Junior Harold Johnson said most students do not go through the formality of asking the nurse for common pain relievers but rather bring them from home or acquire them from a classmate. Because of this, Johnson said the choice to take painkillers as well as the dosage is largely up to the individuals.

“I’d say I take painkillers once a month or so. I have gone over the recommendation before, quite a few times actually,” Johnson said. “I’m not worried. I know it takes quite a lot to do serious damage.”

Johnson’s experience of ignoring recommended labels is not unique. In the United States, one in five users said they exceeded the suggested daily maximum on over-the-counter prescription drugs, such as Advil or Aleve, in a one week period, according to a 2018 a study conducted by the Boston University School of Health.

Four dangers of NSAIDs

  • Increased risk of heart failure
  • Gastrointestinal damage, ulcers and internal bleeding
  • Higher risk of renal failure
  • Serious allergic reactions (including wheezing and throat swelling)

Source: www.draxe.com

Dr. Robert Borsheski works at the University of Missouri-Columbia as an anesthesiologist. Myplan.com, a career planning website, described anesthesiologists as “physicians who administer anesthetics prior to, during or after surgery or other medical procedures.” The job is especially important for patients as deficiency or overdose in prescription carry severe risks to their health and recovery.

While opioids, drugs prescribed by the Drug Enforcement Administration, are more commonly associated as taboo and devastating to health than NSAIDs, Dr. Borsheski said non-opioids should also be taken with reserve.

“The toxicities of non-opioid drugs include problems such as liver or kidney failure. These can be mild cases or can be severe enough to be fatal,” Dr. Borsheski said. “Most cases of unintended overdose occur slowly over time.”

Additionally, according to drugabuse.com, if one overtakes NSAIDs, the consequence could be tolerance, when one regularly takes medicine and eventually must take more to achieve the same effect. More seriously, users could experience addiction, where they are conditioned to take pain relievers regularly or experience irritating withdrawals.

Other long term health concerns include declines of organ health such as cardiovascular conditions, kidney and liver failure and ulcers.

During her freshman year, pain was familiar to junior Rachael Erickson. She suffered from a ruptured cyst, and to cope Erickson turned to Ibuprofen in excess. Before her surgery, Erickson said she rarely went above the recommendation label.  

“[The ruptured cyst] was by far the worst pain I’ve ever felt. It literally felt like I was being stabbed,” Erickson said. “I absolutely couldn’t do anything but sit in my bed for about a week, and I didn’t go to school for that time because it was so bad.”

Erickson said she doesn’t remember the exact number of pills she took but remembers it being “way too much,” and eventually caused her even more pain as it damaged her stomach lining. According to verywellhealth.com, NSAIDs can erode stomach lining by sedating the production of protective mucus. Without protection, the stomach is unable to shield itself from acids meant to break down food.

“Because of the amount of painkillers I took on an empty stomach, my stomach lining became inflamed, and so for about six months I couldn’t really eat a real meal without feeling pain,” Erickson said. “Because of the fact that eating caused pain, I lost quite a bit of weight, an unhealthy amount.”

“Those who overtake painkillers regularly, rather than in a specific instance like I did, are definitely influenced by a culture of medication being seen as the cure for everything, rather than more holistic approaches.”

Rachael Erickson, junior

Erickson learned the dangers and pain of overtaking painkillers from her experience, and since then, she makes sure to only take them in moderation. When used correctly, the pills soothed Erickson’s discomfort and made everyday activities easier.

From her first-hand experience of the consequences of overuse, Erickson said there is a lack of education regarding pain killer use. With many Americans passing the daily amount regularly, Erickson worries they may not know the long-term health risks.

“Those who overtake painkillers regularly, rather than in a specific instance like I did, are definitely influenced by a culture of medication being seen as the cure for everything, rather than more holistic approaches,” Erickson said.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse said, while Americans made up only five percent of the world population, in 2011, they consumed roughly 75 percent of prescription drugs in the world. Dr. Borsheski believes the imbalance in this statistic brings to light problems in the United States as well as in other parts of the world.

“[The imbalance] speaks to [the] lack of access to healthcare in other parts of the world. It also tells me that Americans and the American health system [are] over-prescribing drugs. There could be a number of reasons for this, but in my opinion, people in our culture feel entitled to perfect health,” Dr. Borsheski said. “We want to be fixed by taking a pill. We don’t want to take responsibility for our own health in the form of choosing a healthy lifestyle. So it really says a lot about our culture and how we view what it means to be healthy.”

How do pills affect your health? Let us know in the comments below.

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