Modern medicine has created many astonishing cures, but sometimes the cure is worse than the disease. Never has this been more obvious than with the rise of opiate addiction. Scientists originally developed opioid painkillers to treat chronic pain, but over the years, they’ve caused a serious health crisis. Through the direct effects of prescription drug abuse and its contribution to heroin addiction, opiates have killed hundreds of thousands in the US alone.
The Rise of Prescription Drug Abuse
Though opiates have been around in some form for thousands of years, America’s present prescription drug abuse problem began in the 1990s. During this decade, medical and government agencies called for doctors to solve chronic pain. Researchers explored opioids or substances that numb pain by influencing receptors in the brain, as a promising solution.
By the 2000s, doctors were prescribing opioid drugs on a massive scale. Oxycodone purchases, for example, increased fourfold from 1997 to 2007. Purchases of hydrocodone increased by a factor of nine, while methadone use increased 13 times, within the same period. By 2013, doctors were writing 55 million opioid prescriptions a year just for patients over the age of 65.
With so many patients using opioids, it was only a matter of time before many became dependent on them. Opioids are highly addictive because of their effect on dopamine, a chemical the brain uses to relieve pain. The longer a patient uses an opioid, the harder it is for their brain to produce dopamine without it. Patients, however, were largely unaware of this risk, assuming any drugs their doctors prescribed were safe.
On top of those getting opioids from their doctors, many people started getting them for recreational use. According to DrugWatch, roughly 52 million Americans have used prescription painkillers for non-medical purposes every year. This has further raised the rate of addiction and contributed to the following stats:
- 16,000 Americans die every year from overdosing on prescription painkillers
- 180,000 Americans seek treatment each year for painkiller use
- 475,000 Americans visit the emergency room each year due to the effects of prescription drugs
- 2.1 million Americans have a substance use disorder related to opioids
In 2012, 12 million people admitted to having abused prescription drugs in the US. The only drug with a higher abuse rate is marijuana, which is not nearly as dangerous. There are thus few health crises more serious than the opioid epidemic.
A Highway to Heroin
In addition to directly threatening users’ health, opioid painkillers also contribute to another problem: heroin addiction. Those who develop addictions to prescription drugs often cannot get them once their prescriptions run out. Many times, this causes them to switch to heroin, which is cheaper and has many of the same effects. According to the CDC, three-fourths of new heroin users report taking opioids first.
The increase in prescription drug abuse has driven a similar increase in heroin abuse. In 2015, nearly 13,000 people died from heroin, a threefold increase from 2010. When you combine the effects of prescription drugs and heroin, 91 people die every day.
Searching for Solutions
The US government and health authorities are scrambling to solve the country’s prescription drug problem. The CDC made the following recommendations for reducing heroin addiction and opiate addiction:
- Healthcare providers must limit prescriptions so that fewer people have access to opioids.
- Drug and alcohol rehab centers must use evidence-based treatments and proven medicines like naloxone.
- States should create prescription drug monitoring programs. These programs will gather the information providers need to prevent their patients from becoming addicted.
- State governments, health authorities, and law enforcement officials must work together to detect and stop illegal opioid use.
As a leading drug and alcohol rehab facility, San Antonio Recovery Center is committed to fighting the opioid crisis. For more information on prescription drug abuse and addiction treatment, call us today at 866-957-7885.