What’s Fueling the Opioid Crisis in America


Article by Jillian Barton


The United States Department of Health and Human Services states that “our nation is in the midst of an unprecedented opioid epidemic.” Currently, drug overdose deaths are the leading cause of injury death in our nation. The statistics about the opioid epidemic are staggering:


  • In 2014, more people died from drug overdoses than in any other year on record. More than six out of ten deaths from drug overdoses in the United States involved an opioid.
  • On a typical day in the United States, 91 people die from an opioid-related overdose.
  • More than half a million people died from drug overdoses from 2000 to 2015.
  • An average of $55 billion is spent every year in health and social costs related to prescription opioid abuse.


Victims of opioid addiction include both the low-income and the wealthy. The raging opioid epidemic across our nation has proved that drug addiction can happen to anyone and that opioid addiction has no boundaries.


The classification of opioids includes powerful pain relievers, like prescription opioids, and heroin. Examples of opioids include OxyContin, Vicodin, and Morphine. These powerful drugs work by interacting with opioid receptors on nerve cells in the body and brain, relieving severe pain and producing a state of euphoria. But taking opioids for a sustained amount of time can have damaging effects on the body including nausea, vomiting, liver damage, brain damage, and dependence.


Anyone who takes opioids is at risk for developing an addiction. Opioids are highly addictive, with the possibility of causing symptoms of addiction in just under three days. This is why prescription opioids have a short-term dosage and are carefully prescribed by a doctor. They are prescribed to treat moderate to severe pain following a surgery, injury, or a condition such as cancer. The problem of the opioid epidemic is that individuals are abusing prescription opioids.


The cause of the opioid epidemic is the result of many factors. But one major factor is the medical provider structure. Prescription opioids are relatively easy to access and they account for nearly half of opioid overdose deaths. In 2013, providers wrote nearly a quarter of a billion opioid prescriptions. This overwhelming statistic shows that one of the solutions lies in the way we treat pain in the United States.


Timeline graph of overdose deaths involving opioids, United States, 2000-2015. Image Credit: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.


In recent years, there has been an increase in the use of prescription opioids for the treatment of chronic pain. However, prescription opioids were never meant to treat chronic pain, as they are highly addictive. The combination of an increase in availability of these drugs and the dangerous risks they pose have resulted in a widespread abuse of opioids. In order to effectively combat this epidemic, a limitation needs to be put on how physicians prescribe opioids.


Other causes of the epidemic include patients overlapping prescriptions from multiple providers, individuals taking high daily doses, and individuals with mental illness or a history of alcohol or substance abuse wrongfully using opioids.


In a study published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, the patterns of heroin use from 2001-2002 and 2012-2013 were examined to see how drug use may have changed across demographics. The results showed that the prevalence of heroin use was significantly higher in 2012-2013 and there was an increase in heroin use among white individuals. Researchers highlighted the fact that prescription opioid use may have caused this increase in heroin use that was observed. This is because many heroin users start by abusing prescription opioids. As prescription drugs become less available or harder to abuse, it has been suggested that addicts may switch to heroin.


As the opioid epidemic continues to flare, both federal and state government officials have begun to take action through limiting opioid prescriptions, enrolling more individuals into addiction treatment programs, and investigating the role of pharmaceutical companies in fueling the epidemic.


An investigation into several pharmaceutical companies was requested by Senator Clair McCaskill of Missouri concerning their knowledge about the risks of opioid addiction and abuse, their marketing tactics, and if the companies donated to groups that blocked an increase in regulating opioids.


Meanwhile, some states are attempting to limit the prescription of opioids by enacting opioid prescription regulations. In Ohio, a new rule limits acute pain prescriptions to no more than seven days of opioid medications. In an attempt to prevent patients from receiving prescription opioids from multiple physicians, some states use prescription monitoring programs.


While legislation attempts to limit the opioid epidemic in our nation, Naloxone provides an immediate solution to an opioid overdose. Naloxone is a medication that can directly reverse an opioid overdose in an individual. It does so by binding to and blocking the opioid receptors. Naloxone is available as an injection or a nasal spray, called Narcan. Paramedics, emergency room doctors, and first responders commonly carry Naloxone and can administer the drug to someone who has overdosed.


In an attempt to make Naloxone more accessible, CVS Pharmacy now allows patients to receive the medicine without an individual prescription in 46 states. This increased accessibility for individuals to Naloxone is essential to helping fight the opioid epidemic and decrease the number of preventable deaths from opioid overdose.





Feature Image Credit: ep_jhu

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