UAE medical experts warn of addiction to prescription drugs

Doctors are seeing cases of dependency on prescription drugs every month, with Tramadol and Xanax, intended to combat anxiety and depression, the most popular.

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ABU DHABI // Medical experts have issued a health warning over the improper use of prescription drugs as people develop addictions.

Doctors are seeing cases of dependency on prescription drugs every month, with Tramadol and Xanax, intended to combat anxiety and depression, the most popular.

Muscadol, a prescription drug to control muscle spasms, Valium and drugs with a diazepam derivative are also among those abused by addicts.

Unlike other substance abuse addictions, prescription painkiller abuse is considered more of a silent addiction – more insidious, harder to pinpoint and easy to ignore – and experts have said the healthcare system provides a loophole for addicts to get several prescriptions at the same time.

Most addicts are well versed about ways to manipulate the system to get the drugs they need, said Dr Soha Elbaz, a GP at Abu Dhabi’s Burjeel Hospital.

“They are well-educated about it and well aware of which drugs to mention by name,” she said.

“For example, they say they are allergic to over-the-counter painkillers like Panadol, and they need Tramadol. They say they are well aware of their case and any other drug will be useless.

“There is a lot of patients coming by with the same scenarios.”

Dr Elbaz said people often become hooked on drugs not suitable for their illness or ailment.

Other addicts will have switched from a different substance abuse, such as alcohol.

There are no official statistics for the number of people addicted to painkillers but Dr Elbaz said each doctor at Burjeel Hospital dealt with a few cases a month.

Johanna Griffin, of Lifeworks counselling centre in Dubai, has noticed a rise in the number of people seeking help for prescription drug addictions.

Many, she said, had been addicted to alcohol before “swapping one emotional crutch for another”.

Ms Griffin believes painkillers allow the same release as alcohol but in a more secretive way. “However, using a prescription drug on a regular basis increases your tolerance, and you need to take more and more to get the same effect,” she said. “People then depend on the painkillers to function.”

Both Ms Griffin and Dr Elbaz believe the health culture, where people see more than one doctor, made it simpler for addicts to obtain multiple prescriptions.

When Burjeel Hospital opened last year, addicts known at other hospitals tried their luck at the new facility, said Dr Elbaz.

While she said doctors have become wise to that misuse of the medical system, the fact remains that addicts turned away from one hospital will try at another – and this is made easier because hospitals don’t share their records with other hospitals.

The solution, said Dr Elbaz, was for doctors to spell out the dangers of long-term abuse to patients.

Abdominal pain, gastroenteritis and psychotic changes are all side-effects, as are heart problems, pain intolerance and even the masking of a real medical pain.

Doctors can also recommend patients for psychiatric treatment to get to the heart of the addiction, while also slowly weaning patients off the drug.

Another answer can be to try to trick the addict by telling the patient they are getting the strong painkillers they crave while actually giving them a placebo.

In most cases, Dr Elbaz said, it is a psychological dependence, and so thinking they are taking the right drug is enough to relieve their withdrawal symptoms.

Whatever the solution, Ms Griffin said the problem had to be dealt with as she has seen the consequences of substance abuse through her role at Lifeworks – drink-driving convictions, prison, relationship breakdowns, loss of job and liver failure.