TODAY   |  April 10, 2013

Pill nation: Are we too reliant on prescription meds?

While modern medicines do help us manage pain and live with chronic illnesses, Americans are taking more prescription medication than ever before, leading medical ethicists to ask whether we are taking too many pills for our own good. NBC’s Tom Costello reports.

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>>> "pill nation" and an in-depth look at all of the medicines that americans take. more than 4 billion prescriptions were written in 2011 , that is the most ever. everything from sleeping pills to drugs for anxiety and depression, you name it. nbc's tom costello is in washington with more on this. good morning, tom.

>> modern medicines help us cut cholesterol, high blood pressure , heart disease , the question medical ethicists are asking, whether we're taking entirely too many pills for our own good? it was pain like she had never known before, ten years ago kathy nicholas varraso slipped on black ice , breaking her neck and causing permanent nerve damage.

>> i would sit in a ball in the bottom of the shower and cry because i didn't want to cry in front of everybody.

>> reporter: it was only when doctors prescribed methadone, a pain killer , that she found relief. without it, she says, she might have given up.

>> i wouldn't be alive. i was at the point where i was seriously considering suicide, just because i couldn't take the pain anymore.

>> reporter: thanks to the methadone, she has her life back. nationwide americans are taking more prescription medicines than ever before, more than 15 million americans take pain killers , hydrocodone, oxycodone and tramadol most prescribed. 5 million sleeping aids and 18 million take antidepressants. the risks? emily knows them all too well.

>> i've lost everything and like something that started with just a prescription has led me to places that i never, ever, ever thought that i would go.

>> reporter: emily was a high school cheerleader, accepted to penn state when she underwent chest surgery to remove a cancerous mass. she was already taking anti-anxiety medicines. soon she was depended on and then addicted to the pain killers .

>> it makes me more comfortable in my own skin look i'm invincible.

>> reporter: the government estimates 2.1 million americans are addicted to prescription medicines . ers treat more than a million prescription o.d.s each year. the most commonly misused drugs, anti-anxiety, pain relievers and antidepressants.

>> we turn to drugs for solutions more than any other industrialized wealthy countries do.

>> reporter: dr. jerry aborn says something changed in the 1990s when it became legal for drugmakers to advertise.

>> that's created a sense on the part of many patients that oh, i saw that ad on television, i think i should be on that medicine.

>> reporter: demand for drugs skyrocketed but the drug industry says the ads only inform consumers of the help available to them.

>> for all the research and development in the world doesn't do any good if the people who could benefit from it don't know about it.

>> reporter: kathy says medicines have saved her life while at the phoenix house in new york, emily says she's finally kicked the prescription medicines and looks forward to resuming her life.

>> i feel good. life without the use of drugs is amazing.

>> the cdc tells us more than 22,000 people die each year after overdosing on prescription medicines , many doctors say accidental overdoses can happen too easily when patients, especially the elderly, don't follow doctor's instructions. hoda?

>> tom costello thank you so much. gail saltz is a skik terroripsychiatrist a nd "today" contributor. good morning.

>> good morning.

>> they want a quick and easy fix, are doctors too quick to prescribe these medicines do you think?

>> i think it is a dual problem . patients are quick to ask for them and doctors are quick to give them and some are giving them who aren't doing the evaluation you would hope for if you're going to give it for the specific thing that they are.

>> these drugs become so addictive, they talked about anti-anxiety medicines. what is the danger? you start on one of those because you need it and suddenly you can't live without it.

>> some of these are biochemically addictive so you start with something say a benzodiazepine for anxiety and develop a tolerance and you need more and more of the same medication to have the effect and soon you have a problem, we see that with pain medication , some of the most abused, anxiety medications and then there's sleep aids and antidepressants that people would benefit from another kind of treatment, to be perfectly honest.

>> psychotherapy, sleep hygiene and education. that's a better treatment for them but they don't do it because we want the requestic fix.

>> gail saltz thank you for being here.