ORLANDO. (KFSN) -- We hear statistics every day and don't pay much attention. But this one is stark and sadly real: 44 Americans die every day from prescription pain killers ... 44 every day. They have different names, oxycodone, hydrocodone and morphine, but they all include the drug heroin. New research and information is helping doctors learn more about the epidemic and how they can end this drug war.
"They are literally dying every single day" said a former addict who wants to remain anonymous.
When powerful pain killers are legal and easy to get, that's a recipe for addiction and all too often, death.
"If you didn't know someone who could get them, they knew someone who could get them, or somebody knew somebody," she told Ivanhoe.
The pain pills work until that awful day they turn against you.
She detailed, "I woke up the next morning with a chipped tooth and blood on my face sitting in a pile of my own urine."
This ended her denial.
"At the rate I was going, I wouldn't be alive if I hadn't left when I did," she explained.
More than a quarter billion opioid prescriptions were written in 2012. Of course, many are valid, but according to Martin Klapheke, MD, the Assistant Dean of Medical Education at University of Central Florida College of Medicine, "Prescription pain medications can be a gateway to heroin use."
In fact, four out of five new heroin addicts started with prescription pain medications.
"This isn't about blaming the patient or the doctor; it's about increasing our knowledge of the evidence base," Dr. Klapheke told Ivanhoe.
This epidemic sparked research and now doctors know there are other options.
"There are some anticonvulsants like pregabalin, carbamazepine, gabapentin, there's some antidepressants actually like duloxetine that have been shown to be effective in treating pain," detailed Dr. Klapheke.
Dr. Klapheke said when it comes to opioid prescription training, medical schools have long fallen short. He says we need to do much better educating young and practicing doctors about preventing overdose deaths and about making treatment more readily available for addicts.
"It's the clinical science years that we really want to focus on now and beef up and have the students have more opportunities to apply this to actual clinical cases," he said.
Doctors need to step up and pay closer attention.
Tavya Benjamin, a third year medical student at UCF College of Medicine, said, "They have to do a urine drug screen every month when they come and visit to prove they are not on any other medication."
Future doctors are becoming more aware.
Another third year medical student, Ashley Franklin, explained, "When I think about pain management I think of a very narrow range, like anti-inflammatories, Tylenol, ibuprofen."
Benjamin told Ivanhoe, "I think there are many other effective medications or therapies that people can try before they go to opioids."
UCF and more than 70 other medical schools have signed a pledge to educate their students.
"They already know what they need to know. It's just a matter of caring," said the anonymous former addict.
This new effort is paying off. Opioid prescriptions already have declined by 30 percent.
Doctors and pharmacists are trying to make naloxone, a life-saving antidote for overdose, more readily available to prevent deaths. In most states this is now available to the patient or family or caregiver, without a prescription. Dr. Klapheke said another part of the answer is prevention.
For More Information, Contact:
Martin Klapheke, MD
Assistant Dean of Medical Education
Professor of Psychiatry
University of Central Florida College of Medicine
Prescription, Addiction and Education