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  1. Culture
20 November 2014

Until recently, I was addicted to paracetamol

Don’t bother looking for official statistics on dependency in the UK – because there is “absolutely no data”.

By Antonia Quirke

Painful Medicine
BBC Radio 4

A programme about the “large but hidden problem” of addiction to over-the-counter painkillers (7 September, 5pm) underlined that several billion pills of such medicines as paracetamol and Nurofen are sold in the UK to the tune of £544m a year.

The addiction researcher Sally Marlow said that there are many signs that deaths relating to self-prescribed painkiller use are on the rise but don’t bother looking for official statistics on dependency in the UK – because there is “absolutely no data”. A startling phrase to hear – and doubly so for your reviewer, who until recently was addicted to paracetamol herself. No, I didn’t think it was possible, either, but I didn’t think you could be addicted to the wide-eyed aspirin when I noticed Truman Capote mentioning it in In Cold Blood, so non-opiate painkiller addiction has evidently been known about since at least the 1960s and still nobody talks about it much.

No surprise, I guess. It’s hardly exciting. Having taken it for persistent headaches going back as long as I can remember, I specifically chose the uncomplicated paracetamol over the murkier, opiate-containing codeine because I had never seen anybody standing outside Boots, cracking open a packet and yelling, “Jesus, this is some volatile stuff!” But after five or so years of taking up to a pack a day, I found that I was suffering from a constant headache. The pain literally never went away; it just squatted there, right where the agonising spine meets the appalling neck. Then, during an (unrelated) operation earlier this year, it became immediately clear that the basic painkillers the hospital was giving me intravenously didn’t work one jot. The only thing that shifted any pain was rather a lot of morphine. Looking at my notes and frowning, a doctor said: didn’t I know that the headaches I take paracetamol for are likely caused by it? And didn’t everybody know? Rebound pain from extended use? The more you take, the more dogged the ache.

Again, there’s no official data but just look online: a hellhole of people with exploding heads comforting themselves that theirs is “not so much addiction in the traditional sense but [a] habit”. I cold-turkeyed for a fortnight – with an ache like the insistent throbbing of a bass string – and afterwards cleared my home of all of my packets of pills. Literally hundreds. It was stunning to see how many were separately tucked away and occasionally they still fall from the internal pockets of handbags. I’ve not had a headache since.

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The programme ended with Marlow casting her eye with some despair over the 719 products containing paracetamol now available in the UK and revealing that the independent drugs information agency Over-Count now takes up to 55,000 calls a year. Rarely has an air of “to be continued” been quite so shudderingly deployed. 

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