AROUND 28 million adults in the UK suffer from chronic pain, caused by backache, arthritis or myalgia.
So it is perhaps not surprising that every year nearly six million of us are prescribed opioids – painkillers which can be as powerful as Class A drugs.
But why are we being prescribed them in such large numbers when research shows they are largely ineffective in treating chronic pain?
The answer – because these are powerful and potentially dangerous drugs.
In America, there has been an opioid epidemic, fed by unscrupulous pharmaceutical companies, that has already killed tens of thousands of Americans.
In fact opioid abuse in the US accounts for more deaths than gun crime.
Things are not yet as bad as that in the UK but as I discovered when making my new shocking documentary, we have no grounds for complacency.
Not only are millions of people in Britain taking strong opioids which are doing them little good, and may be doing them harm, but we have created a dependency culture where people in chronic pain expect to get these drugs.
Yet as my documentary reveals, opioids are only really effective in around 10% of cases and for most people, though it may help in the short term, in the long term it can lead to dependency without significantly helping with pain.
However, if you are currently on high dose opioids do not suddenly stop taking them, as you may suffer withdrawal symptoms.
Talk to your doctor about alternatives, because they do exist.
Despite the significant downsides, patients are now being prescribed more than twice the amount of opioids as they were 20 years ago.
There’s 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 doesn’t begin to explain why we are taking so much more than we used to.
Opioids originally came from the sap of the 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’re probably the greatest tool doctors have for numbing acute pain: like a broken bone or an infected tooth.
These days there are lots of synthetic drugs that work in the same sort of way, but which are, if anything more powerful.
The most powerful opioid you can get legally, without a doctor’s prescription, is co-codamol. That is codeine bound up with paracetamol.
Although you can get it over the counter the pharmacist should only sell you one pack at a time and he or she should ask you why you want it.
Yet I show in the film that I could buy 240 tablets in just 40 minutes by visiting a range of pharmacies.
That is how one patient, Vicki, got hooked. She had an operation for a kidney stones and was afterwards given opioids.
When her doctor stopped prescribing them she would just go to chemists buying them herself.
At one point she was consuming 50-70 tablets a day and it is a miracle an overdose didn’t kill her.
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 prescription.
After that is morphine, where a tablet is equivalent to around 13 co-codamol, after which you go to oxycodone (each tablet being the equivalent of 75 co-codamol tablets) and from there to fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is over 300 times more powerful that co-codamol.
It can be a slippery slope. Back in 2014, another patient, Karen, who features in the programme, slipped a disc in her spine while bending over to pick up a book.
“It was like having a, red hot poker, put between your vertebrae…Painful, very painful”, Karen told me.
Over the course of the next five years, Karen was put on increasingly powerful opioids – starting on tramadol and ending up on morphine. But they didn’t sort the pain out.
What they actually did, according to Karen’s husband Ray,” was turn my beautiful, lovely, active wife into a zombie”.
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The good news is that GPs are increasingly aware of the dangers and there is now a big push to help patients on high dose opioids to reduce or even come off their medication.
If you are currently on high dose opioids do not suddenly stop taking them, as you may suffer withdrawal symptoms. Talk to your doctor about alternatives, because they do exist.
I’m delighted to say that, with help from her family, and a surprisingly low tech intervention – group therapy sessions – Karen has managed to come off opioids and is now on nothing stronger than paracetamol.
Addicted to Painkillers? Britain’s Opioid Crisis airs tonight (Thursday January 16) at 9pm on BBC Two