Too many painkillers can mask the root cause and cause serious injury or death

Pain medications are a touchy and controversial topic.

Come to think of it, the very concept of pain is hard to define because each person perceives and experiences pain differently.

Many people depend on powerful painkillers like hydrocodone (Vicodin or Lorcet), OxyContin (oxycodone), and other opioid drugs just to take the edge of the constant extreme pain that they feel from a bad back, severe arthritis, or nerve issues. Other people are able to tolerate these conditions with medicines that are less powerful.

Unfortunately, the opioid painkillers that help to provide much-needed relief for many people are also highly addictive. Those who get addicted to pain medications usually do not mean to do so, it is just that the drugs are almost irresistibly habit-forming. Studies estimate that two million people in America are hooked on opioid pain medications.

In 2010, Texas implemented a new law that requires doctors to register pain clinics with the Texas Medical Board. The public policy behind the law is to prevent doctors from over-prescribing addictive pain medications, with additional oversight and regulation by the Texas Medical Board. This new law has certainly curbed abuses by the so-called “pill mills” that had popped up in strip centers throughout the Houston area and other big cities.

Beyond the addiction problem with opioid pain medications, there is another serious risk that I think has gone largely unnoticed by many doctors, nurses, and hospitals.

Pain medications can mask, hid, or conceal the real problem

While there are certainly many times when patients definitely need pain medications, there are also many times when doctors and nurses overmedicate patients. This can happen in a doctor’s office as well as a hospital setting.

Symptoms like pain, headaches, inflammation, change in mental status or behavior, and fevers are often natural signals that our bodies use to alert us that something is wrong or off balance. They are ways that our body communicates to us that we need to pay attention and figure out what is going on.

While pain medications are useful to take away the symptoms, they do nothing to reveal the underlying problem that is causing the pain.

As an experienced Houston medical malpractice lawyer, I have handled many cases where doctors and nurses giving too much pain medication hid, obscured, and covered up the cause of the pain and resulted in serious injury and death. I will share two examples.

The first example happened in a doctor’s office. I am currently representing a client who had an oral surgeon do a minor procedure in his office. The doctor told her that she should be back to normal within four or five days. When that time arrived, her pain was getting worse, rather than better.

She went back for follow-up visits three times over the course of a week. Without doing an examination or trying to assess the pain, the doctor kept telling her to take pain medications. He incorrectly presumed that she was just experiencing more pain than the average patient and that she was still within the normal range of pain.

The doctor was wrong, though. She went and saw an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist who sent her straight to the emergency room. She had developed a life-threatening infection that had formed an abscess that could have easily cut off her airway.

If you find yourself in this type of situation, do like my client did and speak up. Do you find that the pain is getting worse, rather than getting better? Do you believe that your doctor is not listening to you when you explain what you are feeling? Say something that gets your doctor’s attention and takes him off “auto pilot.”

Consider asking your doctor to do a full examination or assessment. You may want to mention that you are more interested in finding out what the root cause of the problem is, rather than just getting more painkillers.

The second example happened in a hospital. On another occasion, I represented the family of an elderly lady who had to have neck surgery after falling at church. While she was at the hospital, she was complaining of pain and the doctors and nurses kept give her increasing amounts of a powerful pain medication called Dilaudid.

Even though the medical records documented how she was sleepy, sometimes could not be aroused, and even had an altered mental status—she was not acting life herself—they kept giving her the pain medications. This poor lady ended up dying in the hospital from complications of being overmedicated with painkillers.

What can you do to avoid overmedication with painkillers in a hospital? Ask questions.

I recommend that you never allow a loved one to be in the hospital alone. A family member or friend needs to be with them 24/7. Keep a list of medications that have been ordered and how often they are allowed to be given. Is the medication order scheduled (like every four hours), or is it as needed or on demand (“PRN”)?

Under the Texas Board of Nursing rules and regulations, all nurses are required to understand the rationale and effects of medications that they are administering. Therefore, I recommend that any time a nurse comes into the room to give medications, ask what it is for and why it is being given, and keep notes on what you are told. The very act of paying attention and taking notes concerning medications may help the nurse exercise critical thinking, which can be a key to a good outcome.

We are here to help

If you or someone you care for had been seriously injured by a medication error, painkiller overdose, or another form of medical negligence, call the experienced Texas medical malpractice lawyers at Painter Law Firm for a free evaluation of your potential case. Our phone number is 281-580-8800.

Robert Painter
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Robert Painter

Robert Painter is an award-winning medical malpractice attorney at Painter Law Firm Medical Malpractice Attorneys in Houston, Texas. He is a former hospital administrator who represents patients and family members in medical negligence and wrongful death lawsuits all over Texas. Contact him for a free consultation and strategy session by calling 281-580-8800 or emailing him right now.