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Trying to Ease the Pain
By Annie Tisdale
The relationship between women and painkillers is a long and often deadly one. And with new concerns over a spike in deaths in the U.S. contributed to painkillers, many are starting to ask tough questions about what can be done. It’s a sensitive topic but, there needs to be a deeper conversation about the reality of the dangers of prescription drugs. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2013), there is a growing epidemic among young women of deaths from overdoses that has increased more than 400% since 1999.
Many of the deaths rise from the side effects of mixing different drugs (sometimes with illegal drugs or alcohol) or committing suicide through intentional poisoning. But, there is a large fraction of women who take more pills than what is specified and end up overdosing. In the article “More Women Are Dying from Painkiller Overdoses. Epidemic, or Something More Complicated?” , author S.E. Smith (2013) states “In a nutshell, it doesn’t matter how many pills you take: your medication is still going to take effect at exactly the same time as it would if you just took one. For patients with severe pain, it may be tempting to take more in the belief that the medication will act faster, but that’s not how it works.” It seems there should now be more of an effort on behalf of physicians to educate patients about proper use of prescription drugs.
Perhaps some women just aren’t aware of what it is that they’re ingesting. This stuff ain't candy! The article “A Brief History of Pain Relief: From Coal Tar to Tylenol” gives a short timeline of medicines and how they came to be what they are today. From ancient times many societies, from the Egyptians to the Greeks, found ways to alleviate pain through plants like willow tree bark and opium poppies to coal tar. Perhaps if ladies knew the ingredients, they'd be a little more careful when taking medications.
Here is a brief history of painkillers (from a woman’s perspective):
As early as 1780, women were self-medicating with alcohol to help alleviate menstrual cramps. Men, women, and even children would use alcohol for all types of pain relief and relaxation. The Temperance movement of the late 1800s, along with prohibition, led to the search for better alternatives with less obvious side effects.
“For the relief of pain, the treatment is all summed up in one word, and that is opium. This divine drug overshadows all other anodynes...You can easily educate her to become an opium eater, and nothing short of this should be aimed at by the medical attendant.”
Documentation of women’s history with drug addiction in America starts in the 1800s. Opium or Opiates are an anodyne derived from the poppy flower. Women of the nineteenth century were prescribed liquid opiates in alcohol as a cure all for aches and pains. Many women became addicted because they were advised to take the drugs for longer periods. It was believed that it would help “nervous weakness," a disease directly related to vague symptoms believed to be common in the female gender.
With the introduction of the hyperbolic needle to America in 1856, it made it easier to use opium and demand increased, although it was more common for women to ingest the drug by just eating it. By the end of the nineteenth century the majority of morphine and opium addicts were women.
In time, the use of these drugs were increasingly maligned publicly, culminating in the creation of the Harrison Act of 1914 which made drug prescriptions by physicians illegal. Many drugs, such as heroin, were marketed as being a safer alternative to the previous opiates. As it turned out, they were more addictive and far deadlier.
The introduction of anesthesia in 1847 was another important event in the history of painkillers for women. Dentist William Morton developed ether for use in surgery in 1846 and Obstetrician Sir James Young Simpson soon followed with chloroform in 1847 to relieve pain during childbirth. The use of anesthesia became so popular that Queen Victoria is said to have used chloroform during her eighth delivery in 1853. Its use became so universal that by the 1900s the majority of childbirths were taking place in hospitals (where the drugs were), instead of at home. By the 1950s, almost 90 percent of births would be in hospitals.
Also in the 1950s, there was an increase in the use of Barbiturates by women. Originally claimed to be non-addictive, they were marketed to women for weight loss, to lessen anxiety, and as sedatives for sleep. But, as we now know, these drugs can also have very addictive qualities and side effects. There are now many new drugs on the market claiming to be safer and there’s even been a move by some to use all-natural, herbal pain relievers. But, for those dealing with severe pain, there seems to be no other option but prescription drugs. Whatever your choice, it’s important to stay informed and talk to your physician about correct use to stay healthy.
For more information about prescription drugs read:
RX List. The Internet Drug Index