According to the CDC, more than 130 people in the United States die from an opioid overdose every single day. It’s not just street drugs like heroin — prescription painkillers and synthetic opioids like fentanyl are just as responsible, if not moreso.
Opioid addiction and misuse has become a serious national health crisis with far-reaching effects that have an influence on not just public health, but also on the social and economic welfare of the communities affected.
In fact, the CDC estimates that the “economic burden” of prescription medication misuse alone is $78.5 billion per year, including healthcare, lost productivity, addiction treatment, and criminal justice expenditures. The opioid epidemic is a very real, very serious crisis — here’s what you need to know.
What Are Opioids And How Do They Work?
Opiates are substances derived from the opium plant, while the term opioids encompasses synthetic opioids like fentanyl. The body naturally creates opioids to help regulate stress, pain, and how your body processes them, so the receptors in the brain already exist.
Drugs like heroin and fentanyl mimic the body’s natural pain-killing processes but on a much higher level, masking pain signals with much greater strength and efficiency than the natural ability of the body to do so and creating intense feelings of pain relief and relaxation. That’s the reason that opioids like OxyContin and Vicodin are so commonly prescribed for major surgical pain and similar conditions.
The other feature of opioids is to prompt the brain to release dopamine. Dopamine is a naturally occurring chemical associated with the brain’s reward system — the brain releases dopamine in response to survival actions like eating and sleeping in order to create the urge to do those actions again.
The problem is that opioids raise the dopamine levels in the brain to much higher levels than any naturally occurring activity — sleep, eating, exercise, meditation, listening to music, sex, and many others — so natural activities no longer satisfy the brain’s cravings. Instead, the brain has been trained to seek out the sensation of opioids usage above all other priorities because the dopamine spike has convinced it that that behavior is the most rewarding.
As the body and brain become more tolerant of opioid use, the dosage required to create the same sensation continues to rise. Some users start to use higher amounts at a higher frequency, eventually becoming addicted when they can no longer control their need for opioid consumption.
The Current State Of The Opioid Crisis
The first thing to realize is that heroin is actually a relatively small piece of the puzzle. Of the 20.5 million Americans with a substance misuse disorder in 2015, only 590,000 — less than 3% — were heroin users.
By contrast, more than two million people had a substance use disorder involving some form of prescription pain reliever, and more than 11 million people misused prescription opioids. While it’s true that heroin still accounts for almost 60% of opioid overdose deaths, deaths from overdoses of prescription opioids are rising rapidly. More than 17,000 people died of an overdose from a prescription opioid in 2017 — more than five times as many as in 1999.
One of the most-blamed culprits in this crisis is the medical community. In 2016, health care providers issued more than 214 million prescriptions for opioids for the purpose of pain management — nearly 70 prescriptions per 100 people.
This trend has had an especially high impact on women. Women are more likely to report suffering from chronic pain, more likely to be prescribed pain medication, given higher doses, and more likely to use them for a longer time than men. There’s also some evidence that women can become dependent on prescription opioids more readily than men. As a result, while men are still more likely to die of prescription painkiller overdoses than women, the rate at which women overdose is rising much faster — between 1999 and 2016, the percentage increase in deaths among men was 265%, while in women it was 400%.
Unfortunately, this trend only appears to be accelerating. Between July 2016 and September 2017, opioid overdoses increased by 30% in 52 areas of 45 different states. The Midwest in particular saw an increase of 70% in opioid overdoses in that time, and large cities saw an increase of 54% across 16 states.
Fentanyl is the newest opioid to enter the US drug scene, and it’s rapidly becoming the most dangerous. Fentanyl is between 20 and 50 times stronger than heroin and is often cut with heroin to keep potency up. The result is that heroin users, unaware of how strong their drug supply is, overdose much more easily. Fentanyl overdose deaths have risen 540 percent in just three years, from 3,000 to almost 20,000 between 2013 and 2016.
What’s Being Done To Combat The Opioid Epidemic
In 2017, the president declared the opioid crisis as a public health emergency. As a result, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and NIDA have combined their resources and announced that their strategy for combating the crisis would focus on five major priorities:
Wider access to addiction treatment and recovery programs
Alternatives to opioids for treating and managing pain
Support for research into pain management and addiction
Improved public health and addiction education
Wider access to overdose-reversing drugs
The first three goals fall under the purview of a program called the Helping to End Addiction Long-term (HEAL) Initiative. HEAL works with the pharmaceutical industry to find alternatives to opioids for pain management and better understand the most effective forms of treatment.
Overdose-reversing drugs are becoming much more widely available, and have already been able to save thousands of lives. The most common version is Narcan, which can completely reverse the effects of an overdose and is now carried by law enforcement, first responders, and other emergency services. It’s important to remember that Narcan is not a treatment for addiction, only for the short-term effects of an overdose. It will have no effect on the chemical desire to use opioids again in the future.
If you or someone you care about is struggling with a misuse disorder associated with opioids, whether prescription or illicit, you need to take action now. Keeping Narcan on hand is a good start, but it isn’t a substitute for proper care and treatment.
Treatment Guru can help you find the treatment program or facility you need to break free from substance misuse for good. Every patient is different, and our MatchMe program will take into account your personal history and needs to ensure that you have the best possible chances of fighting your substance misuse disorder. Don’t let yourself or your loved ones become another statistic in this growing crisis — contact us today.