Q and A on prescription drugs

By the Times staff
Published February 24, 2008

How do prescription painkillers relieve pain?

Opioid painkillers, natural or synthetic versions of the opium poppy, attach to receptors in the central nervous system and prevent the brain from receiving pain signals.

Do they have any side effects?

Yes. Prescription painkillers can cause constipation, drowsiness, nausea and decreased sex drive. Long term, they lead to tolerance and physical dependence. In some cases, people become addicted, which occurs when they take the drug for euphoric affect.

What are the chances of becoming addicted or overdosing?

Very small if the pills are taken as prescribed and aren't mixed with other drugs without doctor approval. The drugs also shouldn't be mixed with alcohol.

What is withdrawal?

When someone has been taking prescription drugs for a while and suddenly stops, their body craves the drug, causing severe sickness and, in some cases, death.

Do all pain management doctors only give out painkillers?

No. Some pain doctors don't use painkillers at all and try other options, including surgery, injections, burning nerves or physical therapy. Others keep only a portion of their patients on long-term painkillers, but try to find other methods to treat pain.

What is doctor shopping?

Going from doctor to doctor trying to get drugs. Often, doctor shoppers are drug abusers or dealers who fake injuries.

What steps are being taken to stop doctor shopping?

Doctors can take steps like random drug tests, pill counts and contracts to ensure their patients are legitimate. Many people think a prescription monitoring program would help doctors and pharmacists. This would allow doctors to check patients' prescription history on a computer to see if they have received pills from other doctors. Though 35 states have such a system, Florida lawmakers have rejected it several times because of privacy concerns. Another bill is before the Legislature this year.

What about legitimate pain patients who also have addiction histories?

Doctors must monitor these patients closely if they prescribe them painkillers. Many doctors are reluctant to prescribe pills to people with addiction histories and will seek other methods to relieve pain.

What about alternative methods like massage, acupuncture or chiropractic?

Some patients swear by these methods. If more traditional methods aren't helping, patients may want to talk with their doctor about trying these options.

Who can I call for help?

Pinellas, Pasco counties: Operation PAR, 1-888-PAR-NEXT (1-888-727-6398).

Hillsborough County: Drug Abuse Comprehensive Coordinating Office, (813) 984-1818.

Hernando County: The Harbor Behavioral Health Care, (352) 544-6233, or Springbrook Hospital, (352) 596-4306.

Web site: The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, www.findtreatment.samhsa.gov.