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Opioid Addiction: The Health Crisis Sweeping America

July 31, 2018
Published in: Pain Management

Woman holding pills and a glass of water

In the next 24-hours, at least ninety-one Americans will die from an opioid overdose. While adults ages 18-25 years old are the biggest users of opioids, addiction to opioids crosses gender, age, race, and socioeconomic divides. Shockingly, the American Society of Addiction Medicine reports that 20.5 million Americans ages 12 and older have a substance abuse disorder – 2 million of which are abusing prescription opioids.

The opioid crisis is overwhelming first responders, rehab centers, the legal system, and is a major factor in issues like homelessness throughout the United States. Knowledge is power in the face of such a widespread and devastating health crisis. Here are the important points you need to understand about the opioid addiction crisis that's sweeping America.

Opioids: A Double-Edged Sword

Opioids are a category of drug that includes legally prescribed pain relievers like oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, morphine, and several others. Well-known names for these medicines are OxyContin and Vicodin. Opioids also include illegal drugs like heroin. The name opioid relates to the natural plant ingredient "opium" – a pain reducing agent.

Products like morphine and codeine are produced using the natural opium in poppy plants. Drugs like hydrocodone and oxycodone are created from natural opium and manmade ingredients produced in a lab. Heroin, the most dangerous illegal opioid, is derived from morphine.

Prescription opioids were intended to be a short-term pain relief solution for medical patients. Prescription opioids work by disrupting pain signals and activating reward signals in the brain. This process can create feelings of euphoria making an opioid a highly addictive product.

Initially, pharmaceutical companies marketed opioids as non-addictive medications. However, in real world applications, it became evident patients frequently misused opioids and were becoming easily addicted. It's now estimated that approximately 30% of patients that are prescribed opioids will misuse them. A staggering 80% of heroin users report that their addiction began with abusing opioids and they switched to heroin because it's a less expensive opioid.

The Impact of the Opioid Crisis

You'd be hard-pressed to find a demographic that's not currently impacted by opioid use. Take into consideration the following facts:

  • In the U.S., drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death. Opioids are the most common drug people overdose on.
  • Since 1999, opioid overdose deaths have quadrupled – so have the sales of opioids.
  • Overwhelmingly, opioid abusers report being given opioids for free from a family member or a friend. The second highest acquisition method is a prescription from a doctor.
  • In 1980, almost 41,000 inmates were incarcerated for drug offenses. Currently, over half a million people are incarcerated for drug related offenses. Heroin and opioids are among the top drugs that prompt a drug related charge.
  • Every 22 minutes a baby is born addicted to opioids.
  • Opioid abuse is also connected with an increase in homelessness, domestic violence, and mental illness.
  • The opioid crisis is estimated to have an economic impact of $78.5 billion.

Looking Forward

It's clear that strong action is needed to address the opioid crisis that's sweeping America. In 2017, the federal government established the President's Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis. Pharmacies like CVS have announced new procedures for filling opioid prescriptions to limit a patient's supply. The legal system is moving towards a rehabilitation process instead of, or in conjunction with incarceration, and the medical community is working to establish safer guidelines for treating patients with opioids.