Properly prescribed and taken as directed, prescription pain relievers are safe and effective. They make it possible for many people dealing with pain to work and lead productive lives. But, used improperly, prescription pain relievers can be just as dangerous as any illegal drug purchased on the street.

Help Is Available

Workplace substance abuse programs can help protect employers and employees from the consequences of alcohol abuse, illegal drugs and the misuse of prescription pain relievers and other medications.

The LHSFNA’s Health Promotion Division can help develop workplace substance abuse programs tailored to the unique needs and challenges of specific workplaces. For more information, call 202-628-5465. Pamphlets, booklets and program materials about various aspects of substance abuse and drug-free workplace programs can be ordered through the LHSFNA’s website at by clicking on Publications.

Non-medical use – abuse – of prescription pain relievers – taking more than the prescribed dose, taking medication prescribed to someone else or taking pain relievers for enjoyment – is at an all time high, second only to marijuana. Sometimes, the purpose seems worthy, as many workers do not have paid sick leave and may inappropriately use pain relievers to get through their day. Yet, doing so can endanger everyone at the jobsite and impact workers’ families as well.

The widespread misuse of prescription pain relievers strains the nation’s health care system and contributes to rising health care costs. In the United States, twenty-five percent of drug related emergency department (ED) visits involve non-medical use of prescription medications. Opioids – pain relievers chemically related to opium – like hydrocodone, oxycodone and methadone are responsible for the majority of these emergencies.

Opioids are the most effective pain relievers on the market. They interact with pain receptors located in the brain and spinal cord, greatly reducing the discomfort of common construction injuries like sprains, strains and broken bones. These medications can also cause drowsiness. When dispensed, they are usually accompanied with written warnings to exercise caution when driving, operating or working around heavy machinery. Failure to follow these instructions can lead to injury and death.

Euphoria, another side effect of opioids, is what leads to their recreational use. Repeated use can lead to drug tolerance, physical dependence and withdrawal issues like diarrhea, vomiting and muscle and bone pain. Overdose and death are also possible.

In addition to taking more than they should of their own prescribed pain medication or stealing from others, abusers – nearly seven million in the U.S. – “doctor-shop,” purchase via the Internet, steal from pharmacies and engage in “traditional” drug-dealing to get what they want.

Sometimes, legitimate use of prescription pain relievers can lead to their abuse. Drug tolerance and dependence can develop when medication is taken on a sustained or regular basis. To continue to get relief, users begin taking more than the prescribed dose or take it more often than directed. Talk to your health care provider about alternatives if you find this happening.

According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), misuse of prescription pain relievers leads to more drug overdose deaths than cocaine and heroin combined.

  • Never take prescription pain medication unless it is prescribed to you. What is safe for one person may not be safe for another.
  • Do not take pain medicine with alcohol. Alcohol increases the toxicity of pain medication.
  • Only take medication as it is prescribed. If you remain in pain, talk to your health care provider.
  • Do not use prescription pain relievers with other medications unless directed by your health care provider. Make sure your prescribing physician is aware of all medications and/or supplements you take.
  • Prescription pain medications can slow breathing during sleep. Talk to your health care provider about safe methods to manage pain during sleep.
  • Lock up prescription pain medicine. It can kill if taken by others for whom it was not prescribed.
  • Most prescription medication will show up on drug tests, and some drug-free workplace programs require that employees disclose their use. Be familiar with your employer’s program and related laws.

[Janet Lubman Rathner]