Last Updated Jan 31, 2006 10:34 AM EST
As a result, in this country, doctors tend to under-prescribe painkillers because of their addictive nature and for fear of attracting the attention of authorities. Their patients are also often under suspicion when they try to alleviate unrelenting pain — when they become prisoners of pain.
Correspondent Morley Safer reports the story of one man's ordeal.
At the Tomoka Hills maximum security prison just outside of Daytona Beach, Fla., barbed wire and constant surveillance are meant to keep its hard cases from escaping. But there's at least one inmate who poses no such threat.
Richard Paey is in a wheelchair because of a severe spinal injury. Without constant medication he is in excruciating pain. It was pain that put him on the path to prison.
"I felt like my legs were being dipped into a furnace," says Paey. "They were burning, and I couldn't move them. It's an intense pain that, over time, will literally drive you to suicide."
Paey says he tried to kill himself twice. "And for me, death would have been a form of relief."
Pain-killing drugs were his salvation but pain-killing drugs put him behind bars for drug trafficking.
How did this Ivy League-educated lawyer and 47-year-old father of three end up as a convicted drug trafficker?
It began in 1985, when he saw a promising future shattered in a car crash outside Philadelphia. A failed operation left him with metal screws in his spine and unrelenting pain.
To add to his problems, he was later diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Paey says doctors could do little for him beyond prescribing painkillers, including Percocet, Vicodin and Acetaminophen with codeine. The drugs worked, but only briefly.
"As I got worse, I developed a tolerance also with the medication. And so I needed larger doses. Higher doses," he says.
He says he needed the higher doses to live daily life.
"Yes, to relieve the pain. To be a father. To be a husband. To be a member of the community," he says. "I mean, the choice was to almost lie in bed and be a vegetable."
Paey's wife, Linda, worried about his growing dependence on the drugs.
"We were fearful of addiction. We were always worried," she says. "He was afraid to take too many pills. He would play these mental games to try to decrease them himself."
But without the drugs, Linda says there was no relief.
When the Paeys moved to Florida, getting the drugs was the problem. Paey says doctors were fearful of attracting police attention because of his high doses.
"One was quite frank and said that I was, in a word, he said, 'screwed,' " says Paey. "And I was in that medical nightmare zone where you've gone through all the treatments, and nothing works. And what does work, what does help, no one wants to prescribe because it attracts attention, and no one wants that attention."