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The Lethal Consequences of Over the Counter Painkillers


Wednesday, March 11th, 2009 The Lethal Consequences of Over the Counter Painkillers

The Daily Mail’s Kathryn Knight (06 03 09) has written a potent account highlighting the dangers of everyday drugs bought over the counter and the devastating consequences they can have for some individuals.

Knight takes us through the process and paints the picture of a woman Marianne James who is out for lunch with her friends and is devastated to find that she is lacking her fix that normally lies in her bag.

In detail for James she was now pounding headaches as well as a dull ache in the small of her back were already taking hold, as well as a shakiness in her legs.

Alarmingly, Marianne drives in a state of blind panic, but not to her drug dealer, no, she goes to an out of town supermarket where she can buy her fix.

In actual fact the transaction is a perfectly normal one, which costs less than £5.00. Marianne James has purchased a 32-pill pack of painkillers, gulping down six in one go. In common with many drug addicts. James does indeed recognise that her habit is unusual but confesses that she cannot help herself.

Notwithstanding, the legal secretary was in the grip of an addiction problem, which in essence lasted inexcess of three years and at its height she was taking up to 48-60 tablets daily.

What is interesting surrounding this case is the fact that because Mariannes’s drug habit could be bought over the counter, this ineffect acted as a facilitator of her denial.

Moreover, for Marianne, she does not represent the typically perceived drug addict. She is articulate, she comes from a loving family, she also works for a firm of solicitors, but nonetheless she was a drug addict and that has to be.

The relevance that we need to be aware of is that there are thousands of unregistered and unrecordered addicts. Thus there is inevitably some difficulty in measuring the extent of the problem. The General Medical Association in 2004 suggested there might be as many as 50,000 painkiller abusers.

For Marianne however, her problems started three years ago, after she started to take a codeine-containing painkiller for painful periods which developed after the birth of her second child.

‘At first, they were a lifesaver problems started three years ago, after she started to take a codeine-containing painkiller for painful periods which developed after the birth of her second child.

After a few months, she switched to Neurofen Plus when she realised it contained 12.8mg of codeine per tablet compared to the 8mg in her usual painkiller Feminax.

Gradually, she increased her intake, regularly taking handfuls a day ‘to take the edge off’, and by 2007 she was taking between 48-60 tablets a day.

‘Nobody had any idea,’ she says. ‘My family used to joke about me being “a bit of a pill popper”, but, of course, it’s sanitised by the fact you buy them over the counter.

For a long time I didn’t think I had a problem, no one did. But I couldn’t stop taking them. I was trapped in a downward spiral where I had horrendous headaches if I stopped, and it was easier to pop another bunch of pills.’

Furthermore, componding the difficulties of over the counter drugs and there misuse is the internet as many are able to order online easily with no questions asked.

It was a trip to the doctors that Marianne confessed to her problem. Marianne was indeed forced to confront reality. ‘I had a chest infection and went to the doctor.

‘She took my blood pressure and it was sky high, so she knew immediately something was wrong.’ She further adds that, ‘I was shocked I had put my health at risk to such an extent,’ she says now. ‘I had no idea about the side effects.’ This, though, is precisely one of the problems. Codeine is freely available combined with other painkillers such as paracetemol and ibuprofen.

It has been well established and well documented the dangers even life-threatening side-effects ranging from violent headaches, stomach disorders and gallstones to depression and liver dysfunction.

Similarly, Chris Wallace, a 61-year- old retired accountant from Devon, has also been free of her addiction for only a few months. Unlike Marianne, however, she spent nearly two decades in the grip of a codeine addiction.

‘In my late 30s, I had infertility problems followed by a miscarriage at 25 weeks and then an ectopic pregnancy,’ she recalls.

‘It was a very stressful time and I started to develop very bad headaches, which I found that only the painkiller Solpadeine could alleviate.

‘The problem was that four hours later the headaches would come back so I would pop some more. I did go to the doctor, but they couldn’t identify the cause and they didn’t seem to have any problem with me taking painkillers.’

Chris managed to keep her usage to the ‘ recommended’ eight tablets a day, fearing overdose but never once considering the fact that she could not get through the day without taking her dosage once every four hours.

‘I did this every day for nearly 20 years,’ she says. ‘But looking back all the signs were there. If I ran out I was edgy and bad-tempered.

‘My husband sometimes expressed concern, but because these were things I bought over the counter in the pharmacy, it didn’t occur to me there might be something wrong.’

Nevertheless as far as Chris is concerned, she is indeed one of the lucky ones, managing to keep her ‘habit’ within manageable limits, and emerging relatively unscathed. Some people, however, pay a huge price for their addiction.

Sadly for others the outcome is not as optomistic and for two years Linda Docherty, from Bury, trawled supermarket pharmacies and High-Street chemists to feed her habit, which started after she took the painkiller to treat pain from for a stomach ulcer and toothache.

By the time she died, from acute renal failure, she was taking up to 48 tablets a day, confessing her habit to her husband Robert only four days before her death.

‘I tackled her time and time again to ask what she was doing and what she was hiding, but she was fiercely secretive,’ he recalls.

‘She mostly hid the packets and I had no idea to what extent the tablet-taking was going on.

‘Linda was a very intelligent person and I think that her intellect formed part of the problem - she turned on herself without talking to others.’

The day before she died, Linda was rushed to Fairfield Hospital in Bury after complaining of feeling weak and breathless, but her condition deteriorated and she died 24 hours later.

Shortly before she died, she had at least made some attempt to tackle her addiction by visiting her local GP to confess her problem.

Of course, as with all addictions, it is often difficult for people to recognise they are putting their health at risk.

Unfortunately, director of client services Kirby Gregory says he has admitted patients from all walks of life who have a dependency on over-the-counter drugs, and who have spent years in denial.

The underlying problem is that these kind of painkillers are totally normalised in our society. They can provide a mantle of comfort in the first instance, but it can very quickly shift into psychological dependency,’ he says.

‘Usually, the only reason people realise they have a dependency is when they try to stop taking them.

‘We have had people taking huge amounts of these pills - up to 75 a day in one instance - and mimicking all the common behaviour of drug addiction in terms of the secrecy.’

Paul Russell, a leading substance abuse therapist, believes the number of those suffering from this kind of drug dependency is rising sharply.

‘I see clients from all walks of life, some of whom may be taking up to 30 codeine tablets a day or drinking vast quantities of cough medicine.

They have ended up self-medicating with over-the-counter products to mask and avoid dealing with a whole range of problems, including stress and anxiety. As with alcohol abuse, their tolerance level rises and they just find they need more and more to feel normal.’

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