Overdose & Theft: Painkillers for Fibromyalgia & ME/CFS

Safe & Responsible Use of Narcotics

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For many people with fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome, opioid (narcotic) painkillers are a necessary part of daily life. You're probably familiar with the potential side effects of your pain meds, but have you thought about the other ways in which they can be dangerous?

What I'm talking about is the possibility that you could be a target of crime because you have these meds around, and also that someone in your life could harm themselves by taking your drugs — either for recreational purposes or in a suicide attempt.

Common opioid painkillers include:

If you take these meds, you may want to take steps to protect yourself and those around you.

Being the Target of Crime

Narcotics theft is a major problem in the United States. Sometimes, thieves target pharmacies. All too often though, it's people like you and me who get hit.

We need to be careful about taking our pain pills in public, or talking about them where we can be overheard. While you may not suspect people at work or church or whatever else you spend time, painkiller addicts come from all walks of life; they don't fit the stereotype of the shady street criminal who you'd probably never be around anyway. In fact, the CDC says the people at highest risk to die from drug overdose are white men in their late 40s.

When your medication is stolen, it's a big problem. First of all, it means the drugs are in the hands of people who may be abusing them and harming themselves; for you, though, it could very well mean going a few weeks without painkillers.

Most doctors will not refill narcotics prescriptions early, even if you have a police report of a theft.

That might seem horrible to you, but it's for good reason. I recently talked to a doctor who spends some weekends on call for his practice. He said, without fail, the calls start rolling in Saturday afternoon with people saying their drugs were stolen, or making some other excuse for needing either a new narcotics prescription or an early refill.

Most of those people, he told me, are drug seekers who are known by both the medical community and the police.

In addition to being careful and not letting a lot of people know that you take a narcotic, it's a good idea to take some simple precautions:

  • Don't leave pharmacy bags in your car where they can be seen by someone walking past;
  • Don't have visible bottles of medicine in your purse or car, your desk at work, or anywhere else that's public;
  • Don't dispose of medicine bottles in a way that makes them publicly visible, such as in a recycling bin or wastebasket at work. (Most pharmacies are happy to take empty bottles for recycling, as well as old medications for proper disposal.) If you must dispose of them somewhere visible, remove the labels and put bottles in a bag to conceal them;
  • If you receive medications by mail, consider a locking mailbox. This applies whether you get narcotics this way or just other drugs, because people stealing from mailboxes likely won't stop to see what they're taking — they'll just take it.

    While it's horrible to have to suspect your own family and friends, a sad fact is that it's often someone you know who steals drugs. Don't underestimate the temptation they pose, for both their recreational and monetary value. Keep your pain meds out of sight, possibly even locked up, even at home.

    Accidental Overdose, Suicides and Suicide Attempts

    I know two people who've died from narcotics overdose.

    The first was a woman with fibromyalgia and lupus who'd just had a lot of dental work done. Her family says she was in a lot of extra pain at her fibro fog was especially bad. They believe she simply took too much overnight, and then didn't wake up in the morning.

    The other was a 17-year-old girl. She was being treated for two problems: depression and severe back pain. She had unrestricted access to her painkillers while her parents were at work. Her death was no accident.

    Overdose -- accidental (by pain patients and recreational users) and intentional -- is insanely common in the US. According to the CDC, 120 people die every day from drug overdose and nearly 7,000 more are treated for it in emergency rooms. Drug overdose causes more deaths than car accidents, and the rate has more than doubled since 1999. Nearly 75% of overdoses involve narcotic painkillers.

    You also need to be aware of whether your painkiller contains acetaminophen (the drug in Tylenol) on top of the narcotic -- many popular ones (such as Vicodin) do. Acetaminophen is a common cause of overdose as well because it's in myriad products. Be sure to check your over-the-counter medications, especially combination drugs like multi-symptom cold and flu treatments.

    I can't imagine having to live with the knowledge that someone I love died because they had access to my painkillers. I've always educated my children about the dangers of medications, but since the suicide I mentioned above, I've come to realize that education isn't enough: all it takes is one moment of desperation for something irrevocable to happen. I've been thinking about ways to lock up my meds, just in case.

    What about preventing ourselves from accidentally taking too much? If possible, when you're going through a bad flare, give your pain meds to your spouse or partner, or someone else you trust who is readily available. For times when they're not available, have them leave just the pills you can take while they're gone, along with a written schedule of when you can take them.

    When that's not possible, keep a log of when you take your pain pills. Put it somewhere you can't miss when you go to take more, like on the front of the medicine cabinet or wrapped around the bottle. It may also help to use a pill sorter for each day and to keep the rest locked up. That way, you know exactly how much you've taken.

    If you're taking antidepressants, make sure the people around you are aware of the increased risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviors that come with these drugs. Let them know they may need to limit your access to narcotics if they see warning signs.

    I hope you'll take the necessary precautions to prevent you and your family having to deal with a life-changing tragedy.

    Learn More about Your Meds


    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Prescription Drug Overdose in the United States: Fact Sheet. Accessed February 2015.

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