(NewsUSA) - There is a medical problem in the United States that affects more people than diabetes, heart disease and cancer combined -- pain. Pain can cause low self-esteem, depression and anger, and it can interfere with daily activities.

For the millions of Americans who live with pain that is moderate-to-severe in intensity, prescription opioid pain medicines may be an important treatment option. However, when these medicines get into the hands of those without a prescription, they can be as dangerous as street drugs.

In 2006, 5.2 million Americans age 12 or older used prescription pain medicines for a nonmedical use. People who abuse prescription pain medicines can often get them very easily, but it's not necessarily from an illegal drug dealer, as many might think. In fact, 71 percent of people who abuse prescription pain medicines say they got them from friends or family members.

"How do good medicines become bad drugs? Opioids are often a valuable part of the pain management plan, but there is always a risk that patients and even their family members or friends will abuse them," says Jeff Gudin, M.D., a pain specialist from Englewood, N.J. "This is why it is important to safeguard your medicines and take them only as they have been prescribed."

With greater understanding of how to use these medicines safely and appropriately, patients can help protect themselves, their families and their communities from inappropriate use of prescription opioid pain medicines.

Patients can help manage the risks of abuse and diversion by keeping track of how much medicine is left, properly disposing of medicines and talking to teens and young adults in their families about the risks of abusing prescription medicines. And importantly, patients should never share prescription opioid pain medicines with others. Patients should also talk to their doctors to make sure they understand how and when to take their medicines.

"We are the key," says Jennifer Bolen, a patient with chronic pain and founder of the Legal Side of Pain. "Responsible prescription medicine use starts with us, the patients. By exercising responsible behavior we can ensure we, as well as our family, friends and future patients, have access to these important medicines."