When Pain Kills

46 Americans overdose on painkillers each day — and the numbers are rising for those over 55

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After years of suffering from a degenerative back condition, Betty Tully worried that she was already taking too many pills. But when her doctor reassured her that a long-acting opioid medication called OxyContin would fight her pain without any negative repercussions, she decided to try it. At first the pills helped. As their effectiveness diminished, though, she had to take more and more pills to get any relief at all. “Within seven months I was taking 280 milligrams a day,” says Tully, 68, who lives in Chicago. “That’s the equivalent of 56 Percocets a day. I was completely addicted.” When a new doctor balked at refilling her prescription, she discovered what heroin addicts go through when they can’t get a fix. “My body was screaming for the drug. My brain was screaming for it.”