The perils of prescription medication

Medical negligence lawyer Oliver Thorne shares his experiences of the legal consequences of painkiller addiction

Many of us will have consulted our GP about pain at some point in our lives. Back pain and neck pain are particularly common. On these occasions we hope our GP will discover what is causing the pain and prescribe something to make it go away.  Painkillers will usually do the trick and after a short course of treatment the symptoms will generally resolve. For some people, however, the pain can persist and the underlying cause cannot be diagnosed. In these cases painkillers become a long-term proposition to enable a patient to function on a day to day basis. But the danger is that these patients can be easily forgotten about. They attend the surgery routinely to pick up a repeat prescription, but are not always questioned about their condition. In this situation the risk of addiction to the painkillers becomes a concern. Opiate based painkillers can be very addictive and great care needs to be taken, particularly when varying doses. Patients attempting to withdraw from their medication can experience frightening side effects. Patients require slow and supervised withdrawal from these painkillers to avoid worrying and potentially harmful side effects.

I recently settled a legal claim for a woman who had been prescribed the benzodiazepine, Clonazepam for hip pain many years previously. She was told by her pain management consultant that she would probably need to take the drug for the rest of her life as it allowed her to function on a daily basis. However her pain did eventually go away and she then attempted to reduce her dosage. Unfortunately she suffered consequent bouts of anxiety accompanied by chronic bowel problems.

In 2003 she attended a clinic which slowly weaned her off the drug. Nevertheless, she suffered from withdrawal side effects. These included chronic IBS, anxiety, pain, pins and needles and insomnia.

A couple of year later the anxiety had still not improved and she was treated by a psychiatrist. She requested that clonazepam be re-prescribed, as life seemed to be so much easier for her when she was taking the drug. As she was then pain free, there was no clinical reason to prescribe the drug. Her psychiatrist therefore rejected her request.

However, the woman was subsequently seen by a locum who agreed to prescribe the drug to her.

After a period of time the woman accepted that she should not be taking the medication. She tried to wean herself off it, but couldn’t do so and in fact she craved higher doses. She asked her GP to prescribe more of the drug but her requests were refused. It was then that she started taking over-the-counter medication. She also began drinking increasing quantities of alcohol in an effort to avoid her cravings.

All of this had a disastrous impact on the lady’s life. She lost her job and became effectively dependant on her husband for care. In order to break the cycle she booked in to the Priory in 2010 in order to withdraw from the drug. Fortunately the process was a success though some of the  withdrawal symptoms still continue.

I was consulted by the woman about bringing a legal claim and I agreed to take the case on under a no win, no fee arrangement. The claim was a success. The Trust admitted liability for its actions in allowing the drug to be re-prescribed and ultimately a compensation package of £200,000 was negotiated.

If you would like to discuss a medical negligence case with Oliver then you can contact him at oliver.thorne@sleeblackwell.co.uk or on 0800 975 8091

The perils of prescription medication

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