The prescription pain medication Oxycontin is becoming on of the most abused and misused drugs in Hollywood. When used correctly, it's considered a safe pain management drug. But when used inappropriately, Oxycontin, known on the street as OC, O and hillbilly heroin, becomes incredibly dangerous.
Police officials said Michael Jackson was “heavily addicted” to Oxycontin before he died. Adam “DJ AM” Goldstein had several pills in his system at the time of his death two years ago. Courtney Love suffered an overdose of the medication in 2003, the same year radio personality Rush Limbaugh sought professional help for his Oxy addiction. And the drug was one of the medications prescribed to Heath Ledger prior to his fatal overdose.
“In my opinion, the OxyContin problem is in epidemic proportions," opiate addiction specialist Clare Kavin told FOX411's Pop tarts column. "Regardless of the number of warnings and the related news in the media from the last few years, there is still a significant number of patients that are chained to this addiction and are scared or unable to seek treatment due to shame, financial means or fear of relapse.”
So what is it about Oxycontin that makes it so dangerously addictive?
“Oxycontin is a very strong opiate. It's essentially the same as heroin, and since many of the people who abuse it chop it up and snort it, or even shoot it up, there is no difference between being addicted to Oxycontin and being addicted to heroin,” said Los Angeles-based addiction specialist, Dr. Adi Jaffe. “Since the body's natural opiates (opioids) are responsible for pleasure, suppressing pain, and a whole lot more (including roles in digestion), when you take them out of the equation patients experience severe withdrawal that involved incredible pain, restlessness, and anhedonia, which results in a lack of ability to experience pleasure.”
Users of Oxycontin typically report a general state of experiencing feelings of invincibility and increased energy in the beginning. However, some develop a tolerance over time which requires larger, more deadly doses that lead to physical dependence.
“Abusers also experience brutal withdrawal symptoms if use is terminated. These include diarrhea, vomiting, insomnia, cold flashes with goose pimples, and uncontrolled leg movements,” explained Carla Lundblade, a Beverly Hills-based clinical therapist. “Larger doses can bring about acute, possibly fatal, respiratory depression, in which one’s heart slows down to the point that it ceases beating altogether."
According to Kavin, the drug is especially prevalent among entertainment industry elite because of its hefty price tag.
“Oxycontin can be very expensive, at usually 20 to 40 dollars for a single pill," she said. "We have seen celebrities that have spent thousands of dollars a week in order to have these pills delivered directly to them."
But unlike those who are addicted to the drug’s close (and illegal) relative heroin, the majority of Oxycontin addicts initially sought out the readily available narcotic for genuine pain-relieving reasons.
“Some of my patients have become addicted because they had a skiing accident or a dental extraction, something very innocent, but were prescribed oxy and ended up developing some tolerance to it, needing more and more for the same desired effect, and then it got to the point where they couldn’t live without the drug,” said Dr. Reef Karim, addiction specialist and founder of The Control Center in Los Angeles. “They started abusing it, taking more of it, getting in black market ways, tricking doctors, and it became a problem.”
Purdue Pharma L.P., the company that makes Oxycontin, told us that in 2010 they reformulated the pain reliever in an effort to make the tablet more difficult to manipulate for the purpose of misuse and abuse by various routes of administration, such as snorting and intravenous injection. They say the reformulated tablet has properties intended to prevent it from being easily cut, broken, crushed or dissolved to release more medication. As part of Purdue’s proposed risk evaluation and mitigation strategy, a company representative said they will continue to emphasize to healthcare professionals the risks of OxyContin, and how to mitigate them.
“Appropriate patient selection and assessment is a must. Patients at increased risk for opioid abuse include those with a personal or family history of substance abuse (including drug or alcohol abuse or addiction) or mental illness (e.g. major depression). Patients should be assessed for their clinical risks for opioid abuse or addiction prior to being prescribed opioids. All patients receiving opioids should be routinely monitored,” a Purdue rep told Pop Tarts. “Criminal activity and drug abuse should not dictate medical care of the people with moderate to severe pain when a continuous around-the-clock opioid analgesic is needed for an extended period of time and who take these medications as directed by their physician.”
Hollie McKay has been a FoxNews.com staff reporter since 2007. She has reported extensively from the Middle East on the rise and fall of terrorist groups such as ISIS in Iraq. Follow her on twitter at @holliesmckay