Over the past decade, the number of prescription opioid painkillers has increased dramatically. Consequently, overdoses from prescription painkillers are now the leading cause of accidental death in the country. Additionally, the number of people seeking addiction treatment continues to rise as well. Opioids are powerful painkillers, and when used correctly and responsibly they are very effective at treating many types of pain. However, opioids carry an inherent risk of addiction, and several factors are fueling the growing number of painkiller addicts in the country.
Substance Abuse in the U.S.
Lawmakers at federal and state levels have pushed legislation aimed at curbing the growing number of opioid addicts in the country. Aggressive marketing from pharmaceutical companies, a lack of public awareness, and poor prescribing habits all have significant links to the ongoing drug crisis in America.
Opioids are not only extremely addictive, but they also carry a high risk of overdose. If addicts suddenly increase their dosages or turn to other methods to produce a stronger effect, the risk of overdose increases. Between 1999 and 2015, the number of overdose deaths caused by prescription opioids quadrupled. During those years, prescription opioid overdoses claimed more than 183,000 lives.
Problems with Prescriptions
The unfortunate reality of prescription painkillers is that far too many Americans are simply unaware of the inherent risks of using such powerful drugs. Many patients have legitimate needs for these medications but simply assume they are safe since a doctor prescribed them. Patients may take them longer than necessary or alter their dosages without a doctor’s approval. Doing so increases the risk of forming an addiction.
Some have suggested that the doctors prescribing prescription opioid painkillers are not taking enough time to warn patients of the dangers of addiction and overdose adequately. They may also be prescribing them too liberally or to patients who would be fine with less dangerous alternatives. Additionally, opioids are legal to possess with a prescription.
Patterns of Addiction
Patients should take their prescription painkillers only as directed by their doctors, and when the pain starts to wane (such as after recovering from an injury or surgical procedure), they should taper off the medication as quickly as possible. Some patients simply keep taking these medications until the bottle is empty, assuming that they need to take all of them. Once the bottle is empty, if they experience withdrawal symptoms, they may mistake the discomfort for their previous pain and request a refill. While this may offer temporary relief, it exacerbates addiction.
Some prescription painkiller addicts use a practice known as “doctor shopping” to obtain more prescriptions. An individual will visit several doctors in succession and attempt to have the doctors write prescriptions for his or her drug of choice. Once the addict has these prescriptions, he or she will usually visit several pharmacies to have them filled, resulting in a sizable stockpile of pills.
Illegal drug dealers often employ this tactic as well so they can sell prescription painkillers. The black market markup on prescription painkillers such as hydrocodone and oxycodone is very high, sometimes as much as $10 or more per pill. While this may make some drug dealers money, many addicts will not find this option cost-effective for long and instead turn to heroin as a cheaper alternative.
Gateway to Heroin
Heroin is a powerful, synthetically produced opioid capable of staving off the withdrawal symptoms of prescription opioids. Since it is illegal, it is unregulated. There are no regulations governing dosage size, quality, concentration, or additives. Many heroin dealers add other substances to their heroin supply to have more weight to sell or produce different effects – it could be anything from a baby laxative to fentanyl.
This is extremely risky for addicts who use heroin. Users may unintentionally buy a much more potent dosage than they are comfortable taking, resulting in an overdose. Additionally, some of the additives that heroin sellers add to their heroin are potentially fatal. One such additive, fentanyl, is capable of producing effects up to 100 times stronger than heroin, and the lethal dose is very small. Even a minute amount of fentanyl in a dose of heroin can be fatal for some users. In fact, in a small town in West Virginia, a single bad batch of heroin and fentanyl resulted in 27 overdoses – in four hours.
Effects of Painkiller Abuse
As dependence on prescription opioid painkillers deepens, the addict’s natural opioid system suffers, and addiction can eventually become so powerful that addicts neglect basic everyday tasks and self-care.
The brain’s natural opioid system releases dopamine into the bloodstream. Dopamine is the “reward” or “pleasure” chemical and is naturally created by the human brain. However, as opioid addiction progresses, the introduction of additional opioids will eventually degrade the body’s natural opioid system and dopamine production. Eventually, feelings of happiness and reward will only be linked to opioid use.
Dangers of Opioid Withdrawal
Once an addict stops using opioids, the withdrawal symptoms are usually intense and in some cases fatal. The risk of serious medical complications typically depends on how long the person was addicted, how far the addiction has progressed, and the size of his or her most recent doses. In addition to powerful cravings for more opioids, addicts in withdrawal usually experience disorientation, mood swings, irritability, problems sleeping, dehydration, malnutrition, nausea, vomiting, and muscle and joint pains.
Medically assisted detox is essential for a healthful recovery. When addicts choose this method, the detox process is usually much milder and less stressful. Additionally, this helps with the psychological aspect of recovery as well. It’s far less stressful to endure treatment and recovery when the body and mind are healthy. However, the best defense against addiction and overdose is awareness, so it is vital that Americans understand the prescription opioid painkiller problem in the country and approach these medications with caution.