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It's Hip to Be High

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"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.

While doctors know that certain subgroups of people are more vulnerable to addiction than others, they still don't have a good handle on how to spot that vulnerability. There also is growing suspicion that your chemical makeup may be the biggest factor in determining if you are at risk for addiction following short-term use.

At least one government agency has drawn attention to the rising use of prescription painkillers. Late last year, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) listed hydrocodone (Vicodin, Lortab) as an "emerging" recreational drug, saying that emergency room visits in which use of the drug was noted rose almost 140% since 1993.

NIDA is set to introduce a major public-health initiative next week to address the problem of prescription drug abuse.

One reason painkillers like Vicodin, Percodan, and Percocet are attractive to some is because they provide a considerable feeling of well-being, but users can still function relatively normally in their jobs and personal life and often get away with it for years, says Miotto, medical director of the VA Los Angeles Ambulatory Clinic.

As long as you have a prescription, painkillers are perfectly legal. But news reports suggest the black market for Vicodin, Percocet, Percodan, and another powerful painkiller called OxyContin (the "poor man's heroin"), is growing rapidly.

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