The overprescription of opioid medication throughout the United States has reached epidemic proportions. Research from the National Safety Council shows that in 2017, the odds of dying from an opioid overdose (1 in 96) were higher than those of dying in a car crash (1 in 103). The opioid crisis has been growing since the 1990s, when healthcare providers began recommending and prescribing opioids more frequently due to the belief that they did not cause addiction or harm.
We now know that opioid medications are highly addictive and can lead to dependency, misuse, and death from overdose. The epidemic has been followed more closely in the media in recent years now as it has gained attention and become increasingly catastrophic. Here’s a look at the current state of the crisis.
What’s Causing the Crisis?
In the late 1990s, the pharmaceutical industry began reassuring those in the medical community that patients were not at risk of becoming addicted to opioid prescription painkillers. This led to a rapid increase in the number of prescriptions doctors began writing for these medications. Because of this, many patients became addicted before the hazards associated with these medications were understood.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that from 1999 to 2014, the sale of prescription opioid medication quadrupled. However, statistics show no increase in the number of people experiencing physical pain during the same period.
What Are Opioids?
Opioids are drugs that are derived from the opium poppy. Their main use is to block pain signals between the body and the brain. Opioids can be very addictive and may have side effects including nausea, drowsiness, confusion, and problems breathing.
Opioids can come in the form of a number of different commonly prescribed painkillers, including Vicodin, OxyContin, and Percocet, as well as in drugs such as morphine and methadone. Non-prescription opioids include the street drug heroin.
Regular use of opioids can lead to the user‘s body becoming more tolerant of and dependent on the drug. This, in turn, means that to achieve the same effect, the user needs to take a greater dose. The increased doses can ultimately lead to overdose.
What Are the Effects of the Opioid Crisis?
The most recent numbers available show that there was an estimated 2.9% decrease in the total number of drug overdose deaths from the beginning of 2018 to the beginning of 2019. There were 69,029 deaths during that period, and 7 out of 10 were opioid related.
However, despite the overall decrease, 2019 still brought a rise in deaths in at least some areas of the country. Washington, D.C. saw a 24% rise in fatal opioid overdoses from 2018 to 2019.
Not only does the misuse of opioids cause prescription drug-related deaths to rise, it is also linked to illegal drug use and death. Deaths due to heroin use have risen dramatically since 2010, and approximately 4–6% of those who misuse opioid prescriptions go on to use heroin, while about 80% of heroin users began their drug use by misusing prescription opioids.
In addition to the tragic deaths caused by opioid addiction, addiction can lead to problems in society and in the home such as the breakdown of families, child protection issues, and job loss. There are also many mental health challenges that are linked to painkiller addictions.
Many cities and states are currently facing the financial toll of caring for patients who have developed an addiction to prescribed opioid painkillers such as OxyContin and Vicodin. When this occurs, it may be possible for an opioid lawyer to recover damages from drug manufacturers and suppliers to reimburse the impacted town or government body.
What Is Being Done to Address the Opioid Crisis?
There are a number of legislative changes that have been implemented across various states to fight the opioid crisis. These include prescription drug monitoring programs that track the prescriptions for controlled drugs across entire states.
In 2017, The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services announced their strategy for addressing the crisis on a national level by emphasizing the following areas:
- Improving access to treatment and recovery services;
- Promoting use of overdose-reversing drugs;
- Strengthening our understanding of the epidemic through better public health surveillance;
- Providing support for cutting edge research on pain and addiction; and
- Advancing better practices for pain management.
And in 2018, National Institutes of Health Director Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D., announced a new program called HEAL (Helping to End Addiction Long-term) that is conducting country-wide research to provide scientific solutions for the opioid crisis.
The crisis won’t go away overnight, but public officials are hopeful that with time, the programs that are now in place will make a difference. Last year’s rise in opioid deaths in Washington, D.C., is troubling and deserves investigation to ensure the trend does not continue. But we can also take hope in the decrease in opioid-related deaths country-wide and continue working to increase awareness and public health and safety.