Don't Get Hurt

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What if you were injured and developed severe pain that wouldn't go away? Would your government let you take the kind of pain medication you need? If federal officials follow the recommendation of a Food and Drug Administration panel, many of the most effective prescription painkillers-including Vicodin, Percocet, and countless generics-would be banned.

Scott Gardner says that kind of a move would be "intensely cruel."

"I took Vicodin for three years," says Gardner. "I needed it. It got me through a very tough period of my life." The tough period began after a cycling accident shattered the left side of his body. After eight surgeries and countless hours of physical therapy, Gardner's once active life is now filled with limitations. He suffers from chronic pain that prevents him from sleeping more than a few hours at a time, and yet his pain today is nothing compared to the agonizing days and months following his accident.

"When there's nothing but pain, there's no reason to live," says Gardner. "There were times where the only way I could stay sane and civil was because I could take painkillers."

The fear of addiction and abuse already makes many suspicious of pain medication. Media reports about celebrities like Rush Limbaugh or Matthew Perry suggest that it's common for people to become addicted to medications they once took for legitimate medical conditions. And countless public service announcements remind us of the dangers of prescription drug abuse.

Now the old fear of prescription drug abuse takes a new twist. The FDA panel is targeting drugs like Vicodin and Percocet because they contain acetaminophen, a popular painkiller also found in many over-the-counter drugs. Panel members warn that some Americans ingest too much acetaminophen, and overdoses can lead to liver damage, even death.

But maybe the FDA panel isn't putting this threat into context. After all, mundane threats like falling down stairs claim more lives than acetaminophen overdoses. And it turns out the more common fear-that patients will become addicted to prescription drugs-is also overblown. In fact, the barrage of warnings we hear about prescription drugs obscures an important point-people saddled with severe chronic pain need these painkillers.

Says Gardner, "I think people who haven't dealt with pain don't really know what it's like."

"Don't Get Hurt" is written and produced by Ted Balaker, who also hosts. The director of photography is Alex Manning, the field producer is Paul Detrick and the animation in the piece is from Hawk Jensen.

Approximately five minutes. Scroll down for downloadable versions.

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Related video: When Cops Play Doctor: How the Drug War Punishes Pain Patients.

For Reason.com's coverage of "opiophobia," or overblown fears by the government about prescription painkillers, go here.