The Opioid Epidemic In The United States

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America is currently facing one of the largest drug crises in our history. Our nation’s opioid epidemic has become so severe that in fall of 2017, President Trump declared it a national public health emergency.

Drug overdose deaths are now the leading cause of unintentional death in America. Time magazine reports that “In 2016 alone, nearly 64,000 Americans died from drug overdoses—roughly as many as were lost in the entire Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined.” Opioid drugs cause a staggering number of these deaths.

About The Opioid Epidemic

It’s estimated that each day 175 people die from a drug overdose. In 2016, 116 deaths a day were related to opioids. At the current rates of overdose, the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis warns that “America is enduring a death toll equal to September 11th every three weeks.”

In 2016, roughly 11.8 million Americans aged 12 or older had misused opioid drugs over the past year, 2.1 million of whom had opioid use disorders. This includes heroin and prescription painkillers, both of which drive the opioid epidemic. Illicitly-manufactured fentanyl and its analogues have also caused the epidemic to escalate to these extremes. The Opioid Epidemic In The United States 116 Deaths A Day Were Related

Opioids are extremely powerful and addictive drugs. Even casual use can quickly accelerate into the compulsive behaviors of addiction. Some opioids are so potent that merely touching them can cause an overdose. Fentanyl is 80 times more potent than morphine, while carfentanil is nearly 10,000 times more potent. These drugs are increasingly being laced with heroin, making an already deadly drug even more fatal.

America’s High Rate Of Prescription Drug Use

The exact causes behind the opioid epidemic are complicated, but the astronomical number of opioid drugs prescribed in our country is largely thought to be responsible. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that, since 1999, the number of opioids prescribed and sold in the U.S. has quadrupled. Despite this, there hasn’t been any change in the general amount of pain Americans report.

To put this in perspective, in 2013 there were 249 million prescriptions for opioid pain medications written by healthcare providers. This amount would allow every U.S. adult to have their own bottle of pills. The President’s commission writes, “in 2015, the number of opioids prescribed in the U.S. was enough for every American to be medicated around the clock for three weeks.”

The Link Between Prescription Drugs And Opioid Addiction

America is the biggest global consumer of opioid painkillers, especially hydrocodone (Vicodin) and oxycodone (OxyContin and Percocet). These are two of the top three drugs responsible for prescription opioid overdose deaths in the U.S. For instance, in 2013 the U.S. consumed nearly 100 percent of the world’s total of hydrocodone and 81 percent of oxycodone.

These and other prescription opioid drugs are often diverted and misused. Some individuals misuse their own prescriptions, while others misuse a loved one’s or purchase the drug off the street. All of these behaviors are considered abuse, and each may lead to adverse health effects, addiction, and overdose.

Individuals who are prescribed opioid painkillers do face a heightened risk of developing an opioid use disorder. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA):

  • Approximately 21 to 29 percent of individuals prescribed opioids for chronic pain end up misusing them.
  • Of this number, it’s estimated that eight to 12 percent develop an opioid use disorder.

Prescription painkiller abuse is tied to opioid addiction in another way:

  • Roughly four to six percent of individuals who misuse prescription opioids transition to heroin.
  • Nearly 80 percent of heroin abusers first misused a prescription opioid.

Every day, more than 46 Americans lose their lives to a prescription opioid drug overdose.

Lives Lost From Opioid Overdoses

In 2014, the life expectancy for white Americans started to decline. One of the primary reasons was that younger and middle-aged whites were dying at higher-than-normal rates from drug overdoses. The toll of opioid addiction is not discriminating, however. All races, ethnicities, genders, and ages are affected by this tragic epidemic.

Drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death for Americans under age 50. At any age, men overdose at rates higher than women, and, overall, overdose death rates are highest among individuals aged 25 to 54 years. The Opioid Epidemic In The United States 21 To 29 Percent

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that, in 2016, 42,249 Americans lost their lives to an opioid overdose. Specifically, in this year:

  • 15,469 deaths were linked to heroin overdoses
  • 17,087 deaths were linked to commonly-prescribed opioids
  • 19,413 deaths were linked to synthetic opioids other than methadone

Further, the CDC asserts that, from July 2016 through September 2017, all parts of the U.S. saw a 30-percent increase in the number of emergency department visits for opioid overdoses. Certain regions witnessed more extreme surges.

Opioid overdoses during this period rose:

  • 70 percent in the Midwest.
  • 54 percent in large cities across 16 states.

In these instances, opioids refer to heroin, prescription painkillers, and illicitly-manufactured fentanyl.

Understanding Opioids

Opioid drugs take several forms: naturally-derived, semi-synthetic, or fully synthetic. Natural opiates like codeine and morphine are derived from the opium poppy. Synthetic opioids are created in a lab to mimic the opiate effect.

Opioids bind to receptors in the brain in areas which regulate pain and emotions. In addition to the pain-fighting effects opioids are known for, this action also creates a pleasurable feeling. While some individuals misuse opioids to self-medicate pain, the vast majority abuse these drugs to create a euphoric state or high.

Eventually, the brain and body become accustomed to the feelings produced by the drug, a phenomenon known as a tolerance. To compensate for these effects, many opioid abusers increase the amount and frequency of their drug use.

These heightened amounts can quickly cause a chemical dependency. A dependent individual cannot function without the drug, a condition which causes their body to go into withdrawal when the drug abuse is stopped.

Opioid addictions are hard to treat without professional help. Doing so can be dangerous and increases the odds that a person will return to drug abuse.

Fighting The Epidemic And Finding Treatment

In 2016, nearly eight percent, or 21.0 million Americans, aged 12 and older were in need of treatment for a substance use disorder. Of this number, only about 10.5 percent received care at a specialty facility.

In this same year, 2.1 million individuals in this age bracket had an opioid use disorder. With these statistics in mind, it can be inferred that the vast majority of opioid addictions were not treated. The key to fighting the opioid epidemic is greater education, prevention, intervention, and access to treatment.

Opioid drug addiction requires comprehensive, researched-based care. The most successful opioid treatment programs administer medication-assisted treatments (MAT), a combination of behavioral therapies, and medications. Suboxone, a combination of buprenorphine and naloxone, is an evidenced-based medication frequently used for these purposes.

Choosing a program which offers individualized treatments for opioid use disorders increases program retention and success rates. Opioid addictions can be difficult to treat. Many individuals find that they achieve better outcomes in inpatient drug rehabilitation programs.

Contact to learn more about the opioid epidemic and treatment options.

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