The current opioid epidemic in this country is out of control. Opioid addiction and abuse is a serious problem that is affecting society socially and economically. Above all, it affects the health of the people. Drug overdoses in general are the leading cause of accidental deaths in the United States. Specifically, in 2015 there were over 20,000 overdose deaths related to prescription pain relievers, and almost 13,000 overdose deaths related to heroin that same year.
So is prescription drug use related to the current opioid epidemic? The answer is an astounding yes. People who take opioid prescription pills for a long period of time are at a high risk for addiction due to the addictive nature of the painkillers. The same is true for opioid painkiller doses that are too big.
Let us be clear: we are not disputing the fact that these prescription painkillers have medical value. However, many of these drugs carry dangers that are often disregarded or ignored. They are known as medical drugs. The status that prescription drugs carry mean that addiction is overlooked in many cases. The patients who take them are unaware of the risk of dependency. Many doctors do not even know about the dangers of the drugs they are prescribing. Even if their intention is to genuinely help their patients, they could unwittingly send many of them on the path to opioid addiction.
The Popularity of Painkillers
The current opioid epidemic did not happen overnight. It also did not begin with doctors prescribing carelessly or pharmaceutical companies trying to make money. It really began with doctors wanting to help people manage their pain. Pain medicine has been around for centuries. Morphine, codeine, and other opiates are nothing new. But the risks have always been present. Morphine was especially prominent in the 18th and 19th centuries, as Dr. Ananya Mandal, MD points out in the history of morphine:
With the development of transport networks and the dawn of industrialization in America, many Asians fled to America to work. They brought with them the opium that was so common in their country and the use of the drug became common. Opium addiction rose in alarming proportions and the drug was frequently found in people’s homes throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Alternatives to opium were soon sought. Scientists wanted to preserve the medicinal properties of opium such as pain relief and cough suppression but they also wanted to modify the drug so that it was less addictive.
While scientists had the right intentions, can the same be said for today? It seems that the painkillers used nowadays are even more addictive than they ever were. Some people’s views of prescription pain medications have changed over the years. In fact, some medical professionals are even anti-pain medications. Dr. Don Teater, National Safety Council medical advisor, said, “Painkillers don’t kill pain. They kill people.”
It is not hard to see the correlation between the increase in pain medication prescriptions and the increase in prescription overdoses and opioid addiction. According to the CDC, doctors prescribed over 250 million opioid prescriptions patients in 2012. This is enough for every adult in the US to have their own bottle of meds. The CDC also states that 46 people die every day in the United States from an overdose of prescription painkillers.
Non-Medical Prescription Drug Users
Another problem is that many prescription drug users are not even using the medications for medical purposes. They are simply using them to get high. When taking large doses does not do it for these users, they resort to other methods of abusing the drugs. They crush the pills into a powder and snort it, or they take them with other substances such as alcohol. Or, they dissolve them into other solutions in order to inject it. All of these methods quicken and enhance their effects.
According to the National Safety Council, 70% of people who have abused prescription painkillers said that they got them from friends or relatives. Sharing opioid medication is considered to be a felony offense. According to Nora D. Volkow, M.D., it is estimated that between 26.4 million and 36 million people abuse opioids worldwide. A 2014 National Survey on Drug Use and Health report states that there are 4.3 million current non-medical users of pain medications, and around 2 million people have painkiller substance use disorders. There are also many for-profit pill mills that exacerbate the non-medical drug use. They make their money by prescribing prescribe large quantities of painkillers to people who don’t need them medically.
Prescription Drug Use Can Turn Into Heroin Addiction
There is no doubt that prescription drug use has the potential to turn into full-blown opioid addiction. The National Safety Council reports that 4 out of 5 heroin users started by misusing prescription painkillers. They also report that 4% to 6% of prescription painkiller abusers will transition to heroin use. Prescription opioids affect the brain very similarly to heroin. This makes them extremely susceptible to addiction and abuse.
An opioid addiction does not form overnight. Dependency and abuse most likely will occur first. A person may develop a dependency when opioids are taken via a medical prescription from a doctor. This can very well escalate into an addiction. When someone takes opioids illicitly, they are most likely abusing them from the start. Regardless of how dependency begins and escalates into addiction, it is very dangerous.
The increase in overdoses and the abuse of prescribed opioid medications is a trend that will continue unless the intrinsic risks of these meds are minimized. As we stated before, we recognize that patients do get pain relief and reduction in suffering from prescription opioid pain relievers. Around 100 million people in the US suffer from chronic pain. Conditions include anything from back pain to osteoarthritis. For some of these people, opioid medications can greatly improve their life. Therefore, it is important to find a balance between the provision of chronic pain relief and the minimization of health risks. Opioid medications undoubtedly carry value in the medical world. But they can become a recipe for disaster when they are in the wrong hands.