MONTGOMERY — We know prescription drug abuse is fueling the New Jersey heroin epidemic, but it turns out some people can develop addiction issues with their medication before they even realize what’s happening, even while only taking doses that have been prescribed by their doctor.

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“It is true that a certain percentage of people do develop difficulty stopping, and finding themselves escalating the dose more than is prescribed at some point,” said Dr. David Buch, chief of addiction medicine at the Carrier Clinic.

He pointed out recent studies indicate 10 to 30 percent of patients prescribed opiate painkillers may develop this kind of an issue.

“If people have family histories of substance abuse disorder, or if somebody has a previous history of substance abuse disorder, they’re more at risk,” he said. “Young men are more at risk than other demographic groups, it looks interestingly like smokers are more at risk, some people with complicated psychiatric problems may be more at risk.”

So how do you know if you’re starting to get addicted?

Buch said there are indicators you need to be aware of that a problem is developing.

“If people start taking pain medicines for reasons other than pain, sometimes people will take medicines to help with how they feel emotionally, or to help them sleep or for other purposes,” he said. “Some people will find that they keep running out of the medicine early, before the time that the meds should last.”

He stressed some individuals are dealing with legitimate, severe pain issues, “but there are other people who just find that they just can’t feel right unless they just keep escalating the dose.”

The bottom line, said Buch, is “there seems to be a group of people who undergo brain changes just with exposure to opiates over time and some of these people don’t have any risk factors. It’s like at some point you can’t live without it, you can’t function without it, it becomes increasingly important and central to everything to take increasing doses.”

He said patient awareness is important, but at the same time doctors need to be “cautious about starting long-term opiate therapy, they should try to make it more time-limited and try to at some point get people off of opiates. Doctors need to be very careful with patients who continue to escalate doses or combine opiates with other things that might interfere with things like breathing or alertness.”

He added it used to be very common that patients were given a one month prescription for pain meds, but “as a group of physicians we need to be a little cautious about giving long-term meds unless we have very careful monitoring.”

Buch also said educating families about the potential risk posed by opiate painkillers is important.

New Jersey 101.5 will present a special opiate town hall, live, this Thursday evening at 7 p.m.

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Contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com