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Tom Petty’s Opioid Use and Respiratory Risks Under Scrutiny

Posted on 02/01/18: Addiction Recovery
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I don’t know if you’re a Tom Petty fan. I am, and have vivid recollections of time and places in my past that pop up when I hear certain songs. When I first heard about his untimely passing, I felt nauseous. My initial thought was “Is this another drug-related tragedy?” The medical examiner and others did their due diligence to find the root cause of death and it was determined that it was an accidental opioid overdose. That determination wasn’t and isn’t good enough for me. I did some digging. Here’s what I learned about Petty’s health and how those factors may have increased his risk for overdose. You’ll be enlightened about opioid use and respiratory risks. Allow me to also cite some of his more popular music.

Accidental Overdose Is Never Justified in a Community of Experts

Pain is ubiquitous. How we treat pain and applying best practices to patients who suffer from chronic pain remains a subject of interpretation in the medical community. That’s a problem. Turns out we don’t know enough about pain to truly create a benchmark for effective treatment and here’s why.

  1. Pain is subjective
  2. Pain is inconsistent
  3. Drug efficacy is relative to each patient
  4. Patient response to a drug is individualized

What medical practitioners can do is take a personal health assessment of each patient. There are tests that can help gage and guide diagnosis. But there is a human factor. The longer a person is taking opioids for pain, the more opioids are needed to achieve the same level of relief.

“I’m learning to fly… what goes up, must come down…”
Tom Petty

In addition, a patient must be able to define and explain their level of pain, which can change from day to day. As pain levels rise and fall, how can a person accurately intake the amount of narcotic that’s needed? “Take one pill every 4-6 hours as needed for pain…”, probably doesn’t cut it. What more clearly defines a person in pain is stated melodically from Petty. “You don’t know how it feels….”

Truth Be Told, Patient Accountability Matters

accidental opioid overdose

There’s a reason that health care is referred to as a practice. The industry is an evolving work in progress with those receiving the care often relegated to guinea pigs at times. It can certainly feel that way. Scary? Absolutely. It might be the best we can do based on a broken system. What works for one person is not 100 percent guaranteed to work on another.

Petty was in an immense amount of pain. His love for his craft was obvious as he continued to fulfill his recent obligations, playing 53 tour dates despite a fractured hip. As a result, the injury diagnosis was upgraded to a full break. As an effort to combat the excruciating discomfort, he took various prescribed opioids including a Fentanyl patch. This was the unfortunate end to a great American. Though we can take his early physical demise to carry on a message of hope to others who suffer from unintended opioid addiction. This was his family’s wish.

Patient Communication Is Key

“I should’ve known it… it’s the last time you’re gonna hurt me…”
Tom Petty

As personal medical conditions change, communicating these differences to your prescribing doctor is important as it could affect the course of care, including medication. If, while sitting in front of your doctor or nurse practitioner, you don’t feel convinced that what you are communicating is truly being heard or understood, don’t stop there.

Talk to Your Doctor Face-to-Face

  • Restate or reclarify how you’re feeling.
  • If you’re not comfortable, get another opinion.

Each of us needs to own our personal health care.

Opioid Use and Respiratory Illness

One of the many ways that opioid use can compromise health and increase risks is in how it impacts the respiratory system. Painkillers slow breathing and can cause respiratory depression (also known as hypoventilation).  When this happens, the ability to take in air and breathe out carbon monoxide (CO₂) are hampered. The body holds onto more CO₂ lowering blood pH to dangerous levels, called acidosis.

Emphysema. Tom Petty had it. Most likely due to years of marijuana and nicotine use. Not mentioning this as a judgement, but it’s a fact that Petty made no bones about. Now that you have a window into what caused his death and how opioid use can generate risks to respiratory health, it begs the question… did Petty have other choices in his treatment for pain?

Addiction in Musicians Is No Different for You or Me

In recent years, we see more and more untimely deaths related to opioid misuse. Music icons Chris Cornell and Tom Petty (and there are many more) serve as tragic reminders that we are all vulnerable to the unanticipated circumstances that come from pain management and indiscriminate, tragic responses.

If you are currently using prescription pain medication, set up a buddy system. Make sure you notify someone in your trusted circle of family or friends what you are taking and the dosage and update them if the information changes. Keep the opioid overdose reversal treatment naloxone at home and make sure your designated buddy has it as well, just in case. You can also download the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration Opioid Overdose Prevention Toolkit. We can’t be sure how opioids will affect us but we can take precautionary measures in the event the use gets out of control.

Concerned About Opioid Addiction in You or Someone Else?

Image of Melanie SternAuthored by Melanie Stern, Content Director for soberlivingaz.com, writer and broadcaster covering the following industries: addiction rehab, health care, entertainment, technology and advocate of clear communication, positivity and humanity at its best.


If you or someone you know needs help with addiction, contact Sober Living of AZ now to get the help you need. Sober Living offers an acclaimed recovery environment that merges upscale and luxury accommodations with affordability, clinical expertise and an unwavering commitment to patient care and aftercare. Call us now at 602-737-2458.

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