Americans are in the middle of an unprecedented opioid painkiller crisis. For the first time, we are faced with a drug epidemic that represents a departure from every previously established norm. It is affecting people of all different backgrounds – from high school quarterbacks and blue-collar workers to the musical icon Prince.
Opioids are powerful painkillers known by many different names. They are overused, overprescribed and highly addictive. The patients who need these pain-reducing drugs are certainly better off because of them, but the dosages and frequency of prescriptions have contributed significantly to the opioid crisis we have in our country today.
To put things in perspective, here are some facts:
However, the solution to this problem is not as easy as people may think. One simplistic idea is to reduce the supply of prescription opioids. Numerous physicians have done just that – they began limiting opioid prescriptions or deciding not to prescribe them at all. And although this idea helps prevent new opioid prescription addiction, it doesn’t help those already addicted, causing many prescription painkiller abusers to turn to heroin. Eighty percent of all heroin users have previously used opioid pain medications prior to using heroin for the first time. Drugs like oxycodone (marketed as OxyContin, Percocet, Combunox) and hydrocodone (marketed as Vicodin, Norco, Lortab) have become gateway drugs to illicit drugs.
Dealers and suppliers cut heroin with cheap and easily produced synthetic opioid substances like fentanyl, which means less heroin is needed to produce a stronger high. Fentanyl is at least 50 times more potent than heroin.
Recently, heroin has been laced with carfentanil, a large animal tranquilizer which is 100 times more potent than fentanyl and not intended for human consumption. If you do the math: 50 x 100 = 5,000 times more potent than heroin. That’s a deadly force.
Just the slightest miscalculation in the drug’s measurement could mean the user’s respiratory system shuts down, sometimes resulting in death. This is happening in many cities and small towns across our country. Drug overdoses from heroin and opioid pain relievers have surpassed automobile crashes as the leading cause of accidental death. There’s also another growing public health issue: HIV transmission. When heroin is injected, this presents the added danger of HIV transmission from sharing syringes.
All opioids are dangerous, addictive and potentially lethal, even in prescription form. While most people who are prescribed opioids after a medical procedure or surgery will not use them beyond a few days, leftover opioid medications can still be a problem. They become an opportunity for a child or another family member to take them for their own use or divert them to friends. These medicines need to be removed from the home and safely disposed of when no longer needed.
U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy called on healthcare practitioners and public health leaders to work together to solve America’s opioid epidemic.
“Everywhere I travel, I see communities devastated by opioid overdoses,” Dr. Murthy wrote in an open letter in August.
The results have been devastating. Since 1999, opioid overdose deaths have quadrupled and opioid prescriptions have increased markedly – almost enough for every adult in America to have a bottle of pills. Yet the amount of pain reported by Americans has not changed.
As stated earlier, just cutting down the supply of prescription opioids alone won’t solve the problem. A combination of cutting down supply and meeting demands is ideal. This means prevention efforts by physicians and also more access to treatment programs for those already addicted.
Addiction employs a “take-no-prisoners” approach. It is an equal opportunity destroyer of careers and lives. Getting help and seeking treatment is the most important step a person can take and their best chance to live drug free.
Have an opioid addiction or know someone addicted to opioids, learn more about PaRC’s drug treatment program.
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