Tiger Woods and America’s Prescription Drug Problem

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When Tiger Woods was arrested early last Monday morning for DUI, he unwittingly became the face of a growing problem in America. Unlike most DUI’s that get reported in the media, Woods wasn’t driving under the influence of alcohol or any other illicit substance.

Instead, the incident was the result of “an unexpected reaction to prescribed medications,” as Woods explained in an apology released Monday.

Arguably still the most famous name in golf, Tiger has dealt with a number of knee and back injuries throughout his career – for which he was prescribed a number of drugs including painkillers. Among these, it is known that Woods had taken Vicodin, a highly addictive painkiller prescribed for severe pain the night of his arrest.

While Woods’ mugshot made headlines around the world last Monday morning, the circumstances leading to his arrest are increasingly common in America. They also reflect a widespread misunderstanding about prescription drugs that may be fueling the opioid epidemic in America.

Prescription Drugs vs. “Drugs”

Terms like “drugged driving” or “taking drugs” often bring to mind images of people smoking marijuana or shooting up, but these aren’t the only substances that can be risky for your health. Contrary to popular belief, prescription drugs actually account for more deaths than illegal or street drugs. They are also the leading cause of fatal auto accidents since 2015, according to recently released statistics collected by the American Automobile Association.

The problem is that prescription drugs are considered “safe” because they are administered by a doctor and used to treat a condition. However, these drugs also come with their own risks – especially when taking more than the recommended amount or using the drugs for extended periods.

Since these drugs are thought to be safe, many don’t think twice before getting behind the wheel or having a few drinks. But, these medications can have intoxicating side-effects that can make driving dangerous.

Whether people realize it or not, getting behind the wheel after taking some medications can be just as dangerous as driving as having a few too many beers. Similarly, it can be hard for you to recognize when you’re not safe to drive.

How he got here

When celebrities get arrested, everyone always assumed they spent the night beforehand partying, abusing drugs, or partaking in illicit activities. This was true when social media collectively condemned Tiger Woods for being reckless and negligent.

However, Woods’ story is more complex and is not limited to those with wealth and fame. Every day, regular men and women with families and careers engage in similarly dangerous behavior. Many of these may not even recognize the risks they are taking.

This is because prescription drug abuse never looks dangerous at the start. It almost always begins in a typical doctor’s office with a legitimate medical need. Some people come in for broken arms. Others may have issues with stress and anxiety. They may be a mother dealing with complications from a surgery or a son who was recently in a car accident.

The problems come later. Maybe they had an extra stressful day, or the pain is even worse than normal. All too often, the person decides “taking one more isn’t that serious.” Unfortunately, one more than normal can become taking a double dose on a regular basis and they must take even more when the pain is at its worst.

For some others, they never even abuse their prescription. Many take the recommended dosage every day and experience relief for their symptoms. Everything seems fine for weeks, maybe even months. But, this can develop into a reliance on drugs which can become a serious issue when the doctor decides it is time to taper down the dosage.

People who have been relying on prescription drugs for relief for extended periods of time often make the switch to illicit street drugs in desperation, putting them at even higher risk for severe health problems or overdose.

The truth is that even common over the counter medications like Advil™ can be dangerous when taken in excess. Because of this, using any drug for any reason needs to be discussed with a medical professional.

The doctor’s role

To prevent abuse, addiction, or unsafe situations like Tiger Woods found himself in last week, physicians have to take an active role in monitoring their patient’s usage. This includes informing them of all the potential risks, including the long-term dangers of addiction, before giving them the prescription. It is also essential for physicians to continually monitor usage, watch for signs of abuse, and intervene before abuse grows into more severe addiction.

The relationship doesn’t end there, however. Patients are also being entrusted to follow doctor’s recommendations and be frank about their experiences and usage. Even seemingly innocuous behaviors like “taking an extra” for worse than normal pain needs to be discussed because it could be a serious warning sign. It is also crucial to relay any negative side-effects or changes in mental of physical well-being so your physician can make an informed decision about continuing usage.

As for Tiger Woods, it would be inappropriate to leap to judgment about his or his physician’s actions. While driving under the influence of prescription medications is dangerous, there is much we don’t know. We don’t know whether Tiger was informed of the risks of taking the medications, or if he was aware of the potential risks of combining the medications he was on. We also cannot know whether he is on the path to addiction or abuse, or if he made a simple mistake that thankfully did not end with tragedy.

Only Tiger and his doctor can know whether his use of his prescriptions is appropriate. Hopefully, they have a frank and open discussion after this to ensure the golfer stays safe in the future and isn’t on the path to more dangerous behaviors.

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