What you need to know about prescription painkillers

Watch above: Dr. Samir Gupta offered five things you need to know about painkillers.

TORONTO – The number of people dying from prescription painkillers has increased dramatically in the past two decades.

Data obtained by Global News shows 582 Ontarians died as a result of opioid use in 2012.

Deaths as a result of Opioid use has risen dramatically in the past 20 years from 127 in 1991 to 550 in 2010 – an increase of 242 per cent – according to a study out of Toronto’s St. Michael’s Hospital.

The problem is worst among Ontarians between 25 and 34 years old.

“We found that among those individuals aged between 25 and 34 years, that approximately one out of every eight deaths were related to opioid overdoses,” study author Tara Gomes, a scientist St. Michael’s Hospital told CBC News.

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READ MORE: Ontario has no plans to crack down on skyrocketing painkillers

Global News medical contributor Dr. Samir Gupta said Thursday the drugs were originally used to treat severe acute pain or cancer pain but have recently been used for chronic conditions like low back pain.

“The issue with that is, we actually don’t have a lot of safety data for high-dose and long-term use with these drugs,” he said. “We also have some data, in some chronic pain conditions, for example low back pain or arthritis pain, that suggest the drugs might actually be doing more harm than good.”

The drugs are also highly-addictive, Gupta said, and many of the people getting addicted were prescribed the pills.

“Part of the onus is on us, as doctors, to better understand the risks and to communicate those risks to our patients better,” Gupta said.

READ MORE: Health Canada looking for ways to make opioid prescriptions safer

Gupta offered five things you need to know about painkillers:

1. Don’t combine them with other sedating medications or alcohol

“Talk to your pharmacist about everything that you’re on, over-the-counter and prescription, and definitely avoid alcohol if you’re taking these drugs,” he said.

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 2. Lock them up

“We know from studies that in fact teenagers who are addicted to prescription drugs most commonly had access to them initially from their parents’ medicine cabinet,” Gupta said.

 3. Beware of stereotypes

The average addict isn’t a junkie in the alley shooting up with a dirty needle.

“The most common addict is somebody who has started the medication for a very legitimate pain reason but simply couldn’t get off the medication,” Gupta said.

4. Some warning signs

There are a number of warning signs that somebody might be abusing prescription painkillers including asking various doctors for prescriptions (so-called “doctor shopping”), excuses about what happened to their pills, frequent falls or trauma or even an accidental overdose.

5. Talk to your doctor

“If you’re on these medications and you’re trying to get off, talk to your doctor,” he said. “If you’re about to start these medications, have that frank conversation about what are the pros and cons, what are you looking to get out of it, how long do you expect to be on it.”