From injury to addiction: Ant McParlin and Tiger Woods aren't the only ones struggling
Following TV host Ant McPartlin's revelation, Alex Meehan reports on increasing abuses of prescription and over-the-counter painkillers
'If it can happen to someone like me, it can happen to anyone.' That was the message from Anthony McPartlin, one half of the TV presenting duo Ant and Dec, when he revealed last weekend that he had become addicted to prescription drugs.
McPartlin has checked into rehab for addiction to the opioid prescription painkiller Tramadol, as well as alcohol abuse issues. Depression, along with chronic pain following a knee operation, left him hooked on the medication which was prescribed to him by his doctor.
Like anyone else, McPartlin would have presumed that the drugs he was prescribed were perfectly safe. But Tramadol is an opioid, and opioids are notorious for their addictive nature. Opioid pain medication is processed in the body in much the same way as heroin, which is derived from the dried milk of the opium poppy.
There are many different types of painkillers in this particular group, ranging in strength from over-the-counter medications like codeine, right up to extremely strong drugs which can only be prescribed by a doctor. But all work in essentially the same way, by depressing the nervous system.
McPartlin isn't the only high-profile figure to struggle with a prescription drug problem. Golfer Tiger Woods was recently charged by police in the US with being asleep at the wheel of his car while under the influence of the opioid Vicodin and the benzodiazepine Xanax.
TV presenter Lorraine Kelly also recently spoke about her experiences with Tramadol, which she was prescribed after a horse riding accident in 2012.
"It's seductive. I actually came off it before... I actually wanted the pain... honestly, it makes everything fantastic," she said. "But your head is full of cotton wool, it's just horrible and it's not real."
The actress Jamie Lee Curtis, meanwhile, described painkillers as "the warm bath from which to escape painful reality" in a blog post about her addiction.
"My recovery from drug addiction is the single greatest accomplishment of my life, but it takes work - hard, painful work," she wrote.
According to the Health Research Board, as of August 2016, there were 9,652 patients receiving treatment for opioid use in Ireland, and many of these people are those who were prescribed these drugs.
Dr Colin O'Gara, consultant psychiatrist and clinical associate professor in the School of Medicine at UCD, notes that the abuse of prescription medication has been a growing problem here for the past 10 years.
"Prior to that, illicit drug use was the main issue in Ireland - drugs like heroin primarily, ecstasy, cocaine, more recently ketamine and illicit head shop drugs bought over the internet," he explains.
"But over the past 10 years, there has been a slow and gradual increase in the number of people abusing prescription drugs. It's now an issue at the clinical front line, and we are increasingly seeing people presenting with addictions to drugs like Tramadol."
O'Gara says opioid drugs are a particular problem. Heroin is the natural form of this drug, but the prescription versions, which are derived from morphine, have the side effect of producing euphoria.
"People are frequently prescribed them after operations but they are increasingly available in the illicit market, and a growing number of people are getting introduced to them that way. In addition, there are over-the-counter products containing another opioid medication, codeine, which are also a significant problem," he says.
"It's hard to get exact figures on the number of people who have problems with these drugs. What we do know is that they are designed to be used for a short period of time in low doses. When they're used in large doses over a long period of time, people can become very dependent on them."
Jenny (not her real name) believes pressures of work led to an addiction to over-the-counter opioid-based painkillers.
"I've worked in a high pressure job for many years and entertaining clients was a regular and essential part of it," she says.
"There were long lunches followed by drinks but I'd be expected to be at my desk at 9am the next day. A colleague swore by an over-the-counter medication with codeine in it to get them going the morning after, and soon I never went anywhere without a box in my handbag."
But fairly quickly she went from taking two to get rid of a hangover to taking two just to get going in the morning, then another two if she felt a bit tired during the afternoon.
"I'd even take them preventatively before I went out for a night - I convinced myself that if I took them in advance, I wouldn't suffer the next day.
"I loved the fact that they made me feel nice and relaxed, and if I'm honest, I also liked the fact that they helped me stay out longer."
It got to the point that she would get rebound headaches if she tried to stop taking the tablets. "I had no idea codeine could cause problems like that, as well as other complications like constipation," she says.
O'Gara specialises in helping people deal with codeine addiction, and has worked with patients taking anything up to 100 tablets or more a day of over-the-counter pain medication containing codeine.
This is particularly worrying because these products tend to also include paracetamol, which is very dangerous to consume in large quantities.
"The stomach, kidneys and liver can really suffer. Perforations of the stomach and small bowel are not uncommon with this addiction, not to mention serious liver damage," he says.
"Codeine addiction can be very serious and can require substitution therapy. Some people manage to detox and come off it entirely, but others need the help of other drugs like methadone or buprenorphine. That can come as a shock to people who don't think of these drugs as being serious."
THE ROAD TO RECOVERY
If you have an unhealthy relationship with a drug, the good news is that if you’re aware that you have a problem then you’re already on a path that can lead to recovery.
“If you’re developing some insight into the issue, then you’re already ahead. Often addicts don’t believe that they have a problem, even if the people around them can see that they do,” says Dr Colin O’Gara (above) of the UCD School of Medicine and St John of God’s Hospital.
“From there, sometimes the easiest route for people looking for help is a 12-step meeting, particularly if you know someone who already attends. Otherwise, talk with your GP and investigate what options are open to you in your community.”
For further details on meetings for people seeking help with drug and alcohol-related addiction issues around the country, visit dublinlifering.com or call 1800 938 768.