Seven million 'take painkillers so they can work'
28 February, 2013
Boston: More than seven million people are taking painkillers on a regular basis just to feel well enough to go to work, according to a survey.
Many who take medicines such as tramadol and those containing codeine fear they are becoming dependent on them, found research by the firm Nuffield Health.
Drugs charities say dependence on prescription painkillers is a huge but largely hidden problem. Nuffield Health found a quarter of the British adult population has been regularly taking painkillers for at least five years.
Overall, about one in five said they had to take painkillers just to keep working.
Given that there are about 38 million people of working age in the UK, the survey suggests about 7.5 million people are reliant on painkillers to attend work.
A similar proportion said they were worried about becoming dependent on the drugs, which can have nasty side-effects.
Most take everyday drugs like paracetamol and ibuprofen, but many take more powerful medicines such as tramadol and those containing codeine, which can become addictive. A small minority are using even stronger opiates, including morphine and pethidine.
Nuffield Health found people were taking painkillers for a variety of conditions, such as back pain, joint pain, head injury and migraine.
Manoj Krishna, a consultant spinal sugeon at the Nuffield Health Tees Hospital, said: "I was surprised at the overall extent of painkiller usage in the UK. It emphasises that this whole problem has got out of control.
"But work can be painful: for instance back pain is aggrevated by sitting. If you have it, you need painkillers to get through the working day." He continued: "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.
"This can be a very bleak existence with patients becoming depressed, losing their jobs, and often becoming dependent on the drugs." He said surgery, physiotherapy or an effective exercise programme may be better for a patient than continued reliance on painkillers.
Experts are increasingly worried about the ease of access to powerful painkillers. In a 2011 survey, four in five GPs admitted continuing to prescribe drugs to patients they suspected might be addicted. More than half were worried about prescription drug abuse in their areas.
Earlier this month academics called for diclofenac, a commonly prescribed painkiller that can also be bought over the counter, to be banned because it can raise heart attack and stroke risk by 40 per cent.
And last week, the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) called for tighter controls on tramadol, which while used as a painkiller also has psychoactive qualities.
Taking too much can cause rapid heart beat, high blood pressure, vomiting and seizures, as well as a rush of the ‘feel-good' chemical serotonin, which can be fatal.
In 2011 there were 154 deaths related to the drug, mainly linked to abuse, up from 83 in 2008. Dr Kostas Agath, medical director of the charity Addaction, said: "We do see lots of people who are dependent on more powerful prescription painkillers.
"Until recently there was not much discussion about this problem. However, there is help available both from the NHS and organisations like Addaction."