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It's Hip to Be High

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April 6, 2001 -- Friends star Matthew Perry went for help to get over it and controversial rap star Eminem apparently feels so strongly about it that he has an image of it tattooed on his biceps.

The "it" that has celebrities, and apparently plenty of others across the country, in a firm embrace is the prescription painkiller Vicodin. Experts say it -- and several other painkillers -- are fast replacing cocaine and heroin as drugs of choice among recreational users. The problem has become so serious that Newsweek even put Vicodin on the cover of its April 9 edition.

Although celebrities stand out as the most obvious examples, addiction to common narcotics prescribed for pain or illness isn't restricted to the rich and famous.

On her personal web site, actress Melanie Griffith describes how she sought treatment last year for what she says was a 20-year addiction to the prescription painkiller Norco. In journal entries written by Griffith, she says, "I feel it is important that I share this with you, because an addiction to prescribed pain pills can happen to anyone, and you have to be careful. Please if you are on any kind of medication, ask your doctor to explain the side effects and the possible addictive qualities of the drug."

Griffith says she initially was prescribed the painkiller after being injured in an automobile accident but didn't know it was addictive. Media reports say Perry became addicted to Vicodin after having a wisdom tooth pulled.

For most of us, short-term use of these drugs after a dental procedure or for relief of pain after injury doesn't lead to abuse. In fact, some who must take them for pain wonder why anyone would want to abuse them.

After an accident to her hand left her with a painful condition called reflex sympathetic dystrophy and severe carpal tunnel syndrome, 43-year-old Francesca (last name omitted) was prescribed Vicodin to control the pain and allow her to work. That was in January. But she soon found herself feeling moody, angry, and verbally abusive to her husband and family.

"Now I only take it once a day in the morning when I get to work," she says. "For the most part, I prefer to deal with the pain than deal with the Vicodin." She says she actually avoids taking it whenever possible because although it calms the pain, "I don't like what it does to me."

But others, such as those with existing anxiety or depression, people abusing alcohol or other medications, and people who have trouble coping with problems in their life, "get well-being from it and pretty soon the drug has a life of its own," explains Karen Miotto, MD. People who take the drugs over a long period of time develop a physical dependency -- their bodies adjust to the chemicals and become accustomed to them, needing them -- and that's when the dependency develops.

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