We are on the verge of an opioid epidemic, and it starts with co-codamol, warns the television documentary maker – The Irish Sun

Around 28 million adults in the United Kingdom suffer from chronic pain, caused by back pain, arthritis or myalgia.

Therefore, it may not be surprising that nearly six million of us are prescribed opioids every year, painkillers that can be as powerful as Class A medications.


Dr. Michael Mosley warns that the UK could be on the verge of an opioid crisisCredit: BBC / Wingspan Productions / Dan Murdoch

But why are we prescribed in such large quantities when research shows that they are largely ineffective in treating chronic pain?

The answer, because these are powerful and potentially dangerous drugs.

In the United States, there has been an opioid epidemic, fueled by unscrupulous pharmaceutical companies, which has already killed tens of thousands of Americans.

In fact, opioid abuse in the US UU. It represents more deaths than gun crime.

Dependency culture

Things are not as bad as in the UK, but as I discovered when making my new shocking documentary, we have no reason for complacency.

Not only millions of people in Britain are taking strong opioids that are doing them little good, and they may be harming them, but we have created a culture of dependency where people with chronic pain expect to get these medications.

However, as my documentary reveals, opioids are only really effective in about 10% of cases and for most people, although it can help in the short term, in the long term it can lead to dependence without significantly helping with the pain.

However, if you are currently taking high doses of opioids, do not suddenly stop taking them, as you may experience withdrawal symptoms.

Talk to your doctor about alternatives, because they exist.

Vital role

Despite the significant disadvantages, patients are being prescribed more than twice as many opioids as they were 20 years ago.

There is no doubt that opioids have a vital role to play in cancer pain, end-of-life care or to relieve pain after an operation.

But that does not begin to explain why we are taking so much more than we used to.

Opioids originally came from the sap of the opium poppy plant, which has been used for thousands of years both recreationally and to treat pain.

Morphine and heroin are opioids.

They act on receptors in the brain, blocking pain signals from the rest of the body.

In fact, they are probably the best tool doctors have for numbing acute pain: such as a broken bone or an infected tooth.

These days there are many synthetic drugs that work in the same way, but which are, if anything, more powerful.

Chemical warning

The most powerful opioid that you can legally obtain, without a prescription, is co-codamol. That is codeine linked to paracetamol.

Although you can get it without a prescription, the pharmacist should only sell you one package at a time and ask why you want it.

However, I show in the movie that I could buy 240 tablets in just 40 minutes by visiting a variety of pharmacies.

This is how a patient, Vicki, got hooked. She underwent an operation for kidney stones and then was given opioids.

When her doctor stopped prescribing them, she only went to the chemists to buy them herself.

At one time I was consuming 50-70 tablets a day and it is a miracle that an overdose has not killed her.

Powerful analgesic

The next most powerful opioid is pure codeine. Each tablet is the equivalent of 4 co-codamol. You should only be able to get this with a recipe.

After that is morphine, where one tablet is equivalent to about 13 co-codamol, after which it is passed to oxycodone (each tablet is the equivalent of 75 co-codamol tablets) and from there to fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is more than 300 times more powerful than co-codamol.

It can be a slippery slope. In 2014, another patient, Karen, who appears on the show, slipped a disc in her spine while leaning over to pick up a book.

“It was like having a red-hot poker between the vertebrae … Painful, very painful,” Karen told me.

Over the next five years, Karen received increasingly powerful opioids, starting with tramadol and ending with morphine. But they didn’t solve the pain.

What they really did, according to Karen’s husband, Ray, “was to turn my beautiful, lovely and active wife into a zombie.”

The good news is that GPs are increasingly aware of the dangers and there is now a big push to help patients with high doses of opioids reduce or even stop taking their medications.

If you are currently taking high doses of opioids, do not suddenly stop taking them, as you may experience withdrawal symptoms. Talk to your doctor about alternatives, because they exist.

I am pleased to say that, with the help of his family and a surprisingly low intervention in technology, group therapy sessions, Karen has managed to leave the opioids and now takes nothing stronger than paracetamol.

Addicted to painkillers? Britain’s opioid crisis airs tonight (Thursday, January 16) at 9 p.m. on BBC Two

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