New data released by the federal government has found that the elderly are increasingly taking more opiate pain-killer medications than ever before.
In data published by USA TODAY, those over the age of 65 were prescribed 32% more narcotic pain-killers in 2012 compared to 2007. Each year the number has risen, from 6.5 million people in 2007 to 8.5 million people in 2012.
During that five-year period, dosage days of opiates have also increased, from an average of 84 days per prescription to 97 – a 15% rise in duration of the dose.
Number of days dosed for anti-anxiety medications went up eight percent over the five-year period.
The numbers are even more staggering when considering particular opiates. The number of patients receiving oxycodone HCL, for example, ballooned by 54%, while oxycodone acetaminophen (Percoset) prescriptions went up 58%. Prescriptions for Tramadol HCL, meanwhile went up 138% during the five year period.
Anti-anxiety medications went up as well, including Busphone HCL, which went up 46%.
Abuse and Addiction Problems
The problem relates to abuse and addiction. These drugs are known for addiction and for that reason they are considered Class II drugs – drugs with a high risk of addiction and adverse side effects.
This has many experts concerned, not only because of the number of the elderly who are now being prescribed, but the duration of prescription. Another report found that 336,000 elderly persons were either addicted to or had otherwise misused these sorts of narcotics.
The most prescribed pain-killer narcotic drug is hydrocodone-acetominophen – sold as Norco and Vicodin. Over five million elderly people are being prescribed this medication.
The most prescribed anti-anxiety medication is Alprazolam – a benzodiazepine. Some 244,000 elderly people on medicare are taking this medication.
Are there natural alternatives?
The question this often brings up for some is whether there are safe, natural alternatives for these pain-killers.
If we are talking addictive substances such as opiates, these are based upon heroin, which comes from the opium poppy plant (Papaver somniferum). While not all poppy plants contain narcotic opiates, and even the opium poppy’s seeds are often crushed into non-opiate oil, heroin is also highly addictive, and heroin is known to kill its users.
Opiates such as hydrocodone or oxycodon can be just as dangerous if they are abused. For this reason they are highly controlled, and physicians who prescribe them must be specially certified.
Nonetheless, they are being increasingly prescribed and prescribed for longer duration as mentioned above.
In contrast, herbal medicine can offer a number of safe sedatives and calming herbs which can not only bring about a state of relaxation and calm, but come with few adverse side effects. Furthermore, many of these also reduce pain, and reduce the inflammation that produces pain.
Calming and sedative non-addictive herbs as recommended by many natural healers over the centuries include Sage, St. Johns Wort, Kava, California poppy, Hops, Passionflower and many others. Most of these also have pain-reducing effects as well, and thus often serve dual purposes.
Most of the above-mentioned herbal medications also have been used by traditional healers to decrease insomnia. (Refer to Natural Sleep for references, use and more information on these herbs.)
Two Approaches to Pain Relief
There are generally two approaches to pain relief:
One is temporary pain relief – to deaden the pain for awhile. For some medications such as NSAIDS, this is effected by blocking cyclooxygenase and other enzymes (such as lipooxygenase) that are involved in the inflammatory processes that produce pain.
Blocking pain with opiates is produced by the narcotic activating opiate receptors within the nerve cells – which provides temporary relief of pain due to sedation and euphoria.
However, both of these sorts of pain-relieving strategies are temporary. They may be necessary in urgent critical care situations, but they do not help resolve the cause for the pain.
The second approach to pain relief is to help resolve the cause of the pain.
This is where herbal medicines can significantly perform. Depending upon the source of the pain, the correct herbal medicine applied with the right dose can provide pain relief by assisting the body in its process of removing the cause of the inflammation.
Sometimes this effect is done by neutralizing free radicals, and sometimes it is done by increasing blood flow to a particular region. Oftentimes it is a combined effect between these and other mechanisms.
The reason for this is that herbal medicines do not contain a single active compound as do pharmaceutical medications. Herbal medicines will contain dozens – sometimes hundreds of medicinal compounds. Ginger, for example, is known to contain over 400 chemical compounds.
Note: Be sure to consult with your doctor before changing your medications, and continue to consult with your doctor and herbal medicine professionals regarding the use of herbal medications.
Seniors’ Use of Meds Using Medicare Staggering. Accessed June 11, 2014.
Case Adams is a California Naturopath and a Board Certified Alternative Medicine Practitioner with a PhD in Natural Health Sciences, and diplomas in Homeopathy, Aromatherapy, Bach Flower Remedies, Blood Chemistry, Clinical Nutritional Counseling and Colon Hydrotherapy. He has authored 26 books on natural healing strategies.