The latest war on drugs isn't being fought on dark street corners and in gritty alleys. Dr. Oz says millions of addicts across the country are getting their fix from their neighborhood pharmacies.
According to the Drug Enforcement Administration, more Americans abuse prescription drugs than cocaine, heroin and ecstasy combined. "What started out as a legitimate prescription for pills from a doctor now has 6 million Americans addicted," Dr. Oz says.
When beloved celebrities like Michael Jackson and Heath Ledger lose their lives to prescription drug overdoses, the epidemic makes headlines. But you don't have to be rich and famous to support a dangerous pill habit. Millions of suburban moms, dads, teachers, nurses and teenagers are becoming pharmaceutical junkies.
Dr. Oz says prescription pill addiction is the most underappreciated problem in America. "A lot of folks think these drugs aren't dangerous because they're not street drugs," he says. "But there are millions of people who take these prescription medications, not realizing they have the same type of addictive potential as street drugs."
Whether it's Xanax, Vicodin, Valium or Percocet, Dr. Oz says more than 50 million Americans have admitted to trying prescription drugs for nonmedical reasons.
Dr. Oz believes many people taking prescription drugs—legally or illegally—are hiding from their real problems. Instead of addressing painful emotions or aches, addicts swallow a quick fix.
"We're very comfortable painting over that crack in the foundation of our well-being with pills," he says. "We use these pills to numb ourselves to what's really happening in our life, which is often a wake-up call to make a change."
There are three kinds of prescription drugs that are often misused and abused: opioids, depressants and stimulants. Dr. Oz says Oxycontin, Vicodin and Percocet are narcotics that fall under the opioid category, while Valium and Xanax are depressants that depress the central nervous system. Drugs like Adderall and Ritalin are considered stimulants.
"These are effective when dealing with acute problems, but when we mix emotional and physical pain, and we use these pills to numb ourselves to what's really happening in our life … that's a problem," Dr. Oz says. "When we take medications, and we take too many of them, we actually numb ourselves. We become zombies."
South Florida has always been known for its sandy beaches, sunshine and palm tress, but these days, it's also known as the "pill capital of America."
Florida newspapers gave the area this dubious distinction because of the number of pain clinics lining the roadways. Broward County detectives say there are approximately 91 pain clinics in their jurisdiction, as well as a street known as Pill Alley. "This region of the country has definitely become what we call ground zero for the pill epidemic," Detective Henry Lopez says. "What the pain clinics are actually doing is not illegal. People are obtaining these prescription medications, and they're selling them illegally to addicts."
Detectives say they often see patients faking injuries to get prescription medication from pain clinics, which are sometimes staffed by doctors with no certification in pain management. In one parking lot, they watch as a woman dons a sling and arm cast before entering a pain clinic. "We call it getting into costume," Lopez says.
Whether you know it—or want to admit it—Dr. Oz says someone in your life is probably battling a prescription addiction right now. If you have a loved one who can't go a day without a pill, Dr. Oz says he or she is addicted to it.
Since you don't have to inject, snort or smoke these drugs, some consider a prescription drug dependency more "socially acceptable" than heroin, crack or coke. But, Dr. Oz says, the effects are just as devastating.
"If you're going to the drugstore to pick them up or accessing them legally through the Web, then for a lot of folks, that passes the litmus test. So you can trick your moral barometer, but what you don't trick is your physical skills to cope with the addictions," he says. "That's where the bottom falls out."
Oftentimes, an addiction starts with a safe and legitimate prescription. Cheryl, a mom of two, says she became addicted to popular painkillers after being involved in a car accident six years ago. At first, she took the drugs to ease the pain of a broken neck. Now, she can't live without them.
As a rule of thumb, Dr. Oz says if your doctor doesn't help you resolve your pain within two weeks, consult another physician. "Too often we get stuck with folks who are comfortable writing prescriptions because it doesn't take much effort to write a prescription," he says. "It takes a lot of effort to swallow your pride and say: 'Hey, listen. The kind of pain you're suffering from is bigger than I can cope with in my practice.'"
Dr. Oz says you can stay on pain meds for an extended period of time, but you should not stick with a treatment if it doesn't help resolve the real problem.
Prolonged abuse of prescription drugs can take a toll on your finances and emotional well-being, as well as your physical health. Dr. Oz says an addict's liver, the body's detoxifying organ, is most at risk.
A healthy liver is spongy and supple, but if you take a lot of pills at once, Dr. Oz says the liver takes on a greenish hue and becomes softer than normal. "The liver's just desperately trying to keep up with clearing all these toxins from your body," he says.
After many years of drug or alcohol abuse, an addict may experience chronic liver disease or cirrhosis of the liver. "Over time, it will scar and become this cirrhotic shriveled liver," he says. "It goes from this nice, normal liver to this shriveled up carcass that has truly no life left in it."
The good news? Addicts like Cheryl can reverse the negative effects if they get clean. "The liver can regenerate itself. It can go back to where it was before you started," Dr. Oz says. "What is absolutely essential is that you stop torturing it and you start doing some of the smart things that we know will support the liver as it tries desperately to rebuild itself as you rebuild your life."
If you know someone who can't go a day without pills, who gets annoyed with you raise the issue or feels guilty about taking pills, Dr. Oz says she is probably addicted. Once you recognize the addiction, Dr. Oz urges you to get her the help she so desperately needs.
Dr. Oz says an addict has a less than 5 percent chance of recovering without help. To get the conversation started, Dr. Oz suggests choreographing a script.
"I know this sounds hokey, but it works," he says. "You go to everyone who's important, and you say, 'When they come to you and try to wiggle out of what's really happening with the addiction we know they have, we're all going to say the exact same thing.' Which is, 'We love you, but you've got to do this.' Do not give them an out, or they will take it."