2 in 5 brits need painkillers to be able to work

2 in 5 brits need painkillers to be able to work

A survey that took a snapshot of painkiller use across the UK reveals that nearly 2 in 5 people (37%) say they have to take painkillers in order to feel well enough to work. It also finds that 1 in 3 people using medication are worried about becoming dependent on drugs in order to manage their lives.

The survey of 3,100 people comes from Nuffield Health, the UK's largest healthcare charity, whose experts say people often reach for painkillers as an easy and inexpensive way to treat symptoms instead of trying to address underlying causes.

The survey results show that use of potentially addictive drugs in the UK is frequent and common.

Manoj Krishna, Consultant Spinal Surgeon at Nuffield Heath Tees Hospital, says in a statement released on Tuesday:

"A lack of knowledge, or fear of treatment, can lead patients into long term use of painkillers, often without a clear diagnosis by a specialist."

The survey also reveals that:

  • More than half (54%) of respondents said they were using painkillers to manage pain or injuries over the previous year. Interviews with these revealed that 1 in 7 (14%) was exceeding the recommended safe dose, and nearly 1 in 4 (23%) was taking between one and five painkillers every day.
  • Just over 1 in 4 (26%) of respondents said they had been taking painkillers for more than five years. Of these "long term users", nearly 4 in 10 (38%) were worried about their dependency on painkillers.
  • Over 1 in 3 (36%) painkiller users are taking strong versions that can become habit-forming, such as codeine and Tramadol.
  • 7% of painkiller users are using even stronger drugs, opiates, including morphine and pethidine.
  • 1 in 10 painkiller users says they are using sleeping pills.

Side Effects

Krishna says long-term use of painkillers can be a "very bleak existence with patients becoming depressed, losing their jobs, and often becoming dependent on the drugs".

He and other experts say people need should be better aware of the side-effects of taking painkillers. These include sickness, drowsiness, and stomach problems such as bleeding and ulcers. Other long term effects include more serious issues like kidney problems, heart disease and liver disease.

Even after the underlying medical condition has been treated successfully, patients can struggle to deal with addiction to painkillers, says Krishna, a back and neck pain expert who regularly sees patients with this problem.

He urges people to explore their options fully, before reaching for painkillers, especially as there have been so many medical advances in this area.

"Surgery, physiotherapy or an effective exercise programme may be more appropriate. In the 21st Century in a country with a world class health service, our patients in pain deserve a better deal," says Krishna.

Failure to find an effective treatment also leads to long term problems apart from the pain or injury. Of survey respondents still reporting pain or injury, 40% said they had sleeping problems, 40% said they were unable to exercise, and 16% said they were suffering from depression.

It Is Important to Seek Expert Advice

The survey also shows that of those experiencing pain who did find a solution other than painkillers, 1 in 5 (19%) sought physiotherapy while another 7% sought surgery.

Cabella Lowe, Head of Physiotherapy Services at Nuffield Health, says she is surprised that only one fifth of people are choosing to treat pain with physiotherapy. She says more people could benefit from visiting a physiotherapist to treat pain.

"Worries about dependency are staggeringly high and match an increasing trend for people to use painkillers as a solution. Any concerns people have about their reliance on painkillers should be addressed urgently with a GP," urges Lowe, adding that:

"The most important action is to seek expert advice quickly as research shows that early intervention is key to getting rid of pain."

Hannah Meeson is a spinal surgery patient who used painkillers for many years while searching for expert help.

"I had severe low back pain and leg pain for 10 years. I was severely depressed and taking 36 tablets a day, as well as permanent Fentanyl patches, which were a similar dosage as those prescribed to terminally ill patients," says Meeson.

She says several doctors told her there was nothing else that could be done for her.

But she says she "never gave up hope" and eventually found a specialist who was able to help.

"Six years ago I had surgery and now have no pain. Over the last 6 years I have saved the NHS from prescribing me almost 80,000 tablets," says Meeson.

Regional Variations in Painkiller Use

At 39%, London showed the highest proportion of painkiller users who expressed concern about dependency.

At 43%, the North East showed the highest proportion of painkiller users who are managing their pain with strong drugs like codeine and Tramadol. Of these, nearly 1 in 4 (24%) admitted to using more than the safe recommended dose.

At 44% and 42% respectively, Londoners and people living in the West Midlands are the most likely to use painkillers to enable them to work.

Across the Atlantic in New York, Mayor Bloomberg recently announced new emergency room guidelines to prevent opioid prescription painkiller abuse. Over the last ten years, the number of people in New York who have misused these medications and died from overdoses has risen dramatically.

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