Friday, April 21, 2017 marks one year since the unexpected and shocking overdose death of Prince, the gender- and genre-bending artist that defined a generation and redefined the status quo throughout the decades. His passing brought back fond memories of some of his greatest public accomplishments — releasing hits like “Little Red Corvette” and “When Doves Cry,” starring in the rock musical film “Purple Rain” and performing at the 2007 Super Bowl halftime show. But in the year since his passing, the international superstar has also sparked conversation about prescription drug misuse and addiction. Prince was found lifeless in an elevator inside his 65,000-square-foot Paisley Park compound on the morning of April 21, 2016. He had died at age 57 from an apparent drug overdose. The culprit in the singer’s untimely death: fentanyl, an incredibly strong opioid that is often administered by a physician to manage pain after surgery.

But the accidental overdose took many closest to him by surprise, proving how stealthy a reliance on pain medication can be. Prince was a notoriously stringent individual in recent years, eating a vegetarian diet and often foregoing alcohol. But behind closed doors, it appears he struggled to manage chronic pain with prescription medications.

Painkillers That Kill

After years of electrifying performances and stunt-like dance moves, Prince suffered from severe hip pain, with some reports indicating that he eventually elected to undergo surgery in the mid-2000s. He had been using painkillers to suppress his issues for years, unbeknownst to many in his closest circle. Recently released records indicate that none of the prescription medications found in his home had his name on them and some were even concealed in innocuous Bayer, Aleve and vitamin bottles. Percocet and Vicodin were among the camouflaged medications, with some prescription pill bottles bearing the name Kirk Johnson, one of the musician’s long-time friends and former drummer. Prince’s doctor, Michael Todd Schulenberg, said that he used the Johnson’s name for privacy reasons.

Dr. Schulenberg arrived at Prince’s Minneapolis, Minnesota home on the morning of his death to bring test results, as he had just seen the singer the day before. And while the doctor had recently prescribed pain medications under Johnson’s name, it is not clear how Prince attained the fatal dose of fentanyl that took his life. According to search warrants and affidavits recently unsealed by the Carver County Sheriff’s Office, a bottle of Aleve filled with pills mislabeled as “Watson 853” (normally a mixture of acetaminophen and hydrocodone) actually contained fentanyl.

Fentanyl is at the center of a recent opioid epidemic in the United States, killing 9,580 in 2015. Fifty times more potent than heroin, the prescription drug is often reserved for managing pain after surgery and for terminal cancer patients. It can be administered orally, or as an injection or patch, but should only be used under the careful supervision of a medical professional. While it is only available with a prescription, unauthorized fentanyl doses have popped up across the country, often disguised as other substances on the black market. Its illicit form is often cut with a combination of other dangerous substances, resulting in an influx of fentanyl-related deaths in recent years. Because fentanyl is so addictive and deadly, it should only be used as part of an licensed pain-management regimen with specified doses.

Treatment Too Late

Although Prince was able to conceal his painkiller use from many, the number of pills discovered throughout his home — in dressing rooms, suitcases and envelopes — indicate that he struggled with substance use disorder. For many who rely on prescription drugs to manage pain, it is difficult (if not impossible) to realize or admit that there is a problem. But some in his inner circle did recognize the problem, calling in a specialist who arrived hours too late. A week before his death, the singer’s private jet made an emergency landing in Illinois after leaving a show in Atlanta.

While initially dismissed as the flu, the investigation later revealed that Prince had been rendered unconscious after taking pain pills. Following the administration of naloxone, a “save shot” that serves as an antidote to opioid overdose, his team was determined to get help for the troubled singer. His friend’s contacted Dr. Howard Kornfeld, a leading opioid addiction specialist in California, who sent his son on an overnight flight to Minnesota just before the Prince’s passing. Andrew Kornfeld, who was set to lay out a treatment plan, was among those who discovered the singer’s body.

Managing Pain Without Addiction

For those who use prescription painkillers to treat chronic pain, it’s often difficult to distinguish between normal use and addiction. After all, there is usually a genuine reason why pain medication is distributed in the first place. Like in Prince’s case, it may take the acute attention of others to fully comprehend the grips of opioid addiction before it’s too late. For Prince, it was a sense of dignified perseverance that left so many surprised by his reliance on pain medications. He performed through pain, never letting on to backup dancers or others that he was suffering for his art. Alan Leeds, Prince’s former tour manager and president of Paisley Park Records says, “There wasn’t a tour we did where he wasn’t sometimes performing in pain.”

The clandestine approach to pain management likely led to an isolated battle that quietly spiraled out of control, perhaps even unbeknownst to the artist himself. Seeking substance use treatment early, whether it be by self-recognition or with the help of friends and family, is key.

If you or someone you know is suffering from opioid addiction, there are resources available to manage chronic pain while overcoming addiction. With treatment centers throughout the United States, The Recovery Village can kick-start your comeback for a healthy lifestyle. Contact one of our addiction specialists today to learn more about drug rehab and treatment options that can save lives, hope is alive.

a woman with long brown hair smiling at the camera.
By – Renee Deveney
As a contributor for Advanced Recovery Systems, Renee Deveney is passionate about helping people struggling with substance use disorder. With a family history of addiction, Renee is committed to opening up a proactive dialogue about substance use and mental health. Read more
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