Drug overdoses, especially those related to opioid addiction, have ravaged our country. There have been 932,000 U.S. drug overdose deaths since 1999, with 91,799 occurring in 2020 alone.1 From protests to presidential elections to the COVID-19 pandemic, our country and the world have certainly experienced several struggles in the past few years. But aside from these occurrences, there’s been an underlying problem that has persisted for decades: the opioid epidemic. As we scramble to take sides and keep up with the latest news on our social media accounts, an average of 44 opioid overdose deaths in the U.S. occur daily.2
How Does Opioid Addiction Start?
Opioids, sometimes called narcotics, are a group of drugs that include both prescription medications and illicit substances. In a medical setting, opioids are prescribed to treat moderate to severe and/or chronic pain. They might be prescribed to patients who are suffering from chronic headaches, chronic backaches, surgery, or pain associated with cancer, injuries, and accidents.
Opioids work by attaching themselves to proteins in the central nervous system called opioid receptors. These exist on nerve cells in the brain, spinal cord, gut, and other parts of the body. When this occurs, opioids block pain signals sent from the body through the spinal cord to the brain. While these drugs can effectively alleviate the worst of pain, they also come with a high risk of addiction.
Anyone who takes opioids is at risk of developing an opioid use disorder or addiction. Legal or illegal, stolen or shared, these substances are responsible for most opioid overdose deaths in the U.S. today.
Opioid addiction is more likely to occur in individuals who take these drugs for longer than a few days. For instance, the odds that you’ll still be taking opioids after a year of starting them increases only after five days of opioid use. An opioid addiction develops because the body and mind become accustomed to these drugs’ effects.
In addition to blocking pain signals, opioids trigger the release of endorphins, your brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters. Endorphins muffle your perception of pain while boosting feelings of pleasure and well-being, creating a temporary but powerful sensation of euphoria. When an opioid dose wears off, you may find yourself wanting to experience those feelings again.
These effects and desires are what drive people to continue using opioids. What’s more, the longer a person uses opioids, the more tolerant and dependent on the drugs they become. Tolerance occurs when the person needs higher doses to feel the same effects. This often leads to heavier and more frequent drug-taking behavior.
Tolerance is usually paired with physical dependence, which is evident when the person experiences withdrawal symptoms when they aren’t taking opioids or when they cut back on their use. Opioid withdrawals can be uncomfortable, painful, and life-threatening, to the point where the individual who’s attempting to cut back or quit cold turkey may keep using opioids to avoid the feeling.
Over time, the person develops an uncontrollable psychological and physical urge to keep using opioids. This is what’s known as opioid addiction.
What Started the Opioid Crisis?
We have become a generation that is completely reliant upon medication to “fix” the problem. This could be Adderall for a child’s hyper behavior, Valium to ease our anxious moments, or Percocet to remove the aches and tenderness after a dental procedure. While drug addiction and people needing help are not new concepts, the current situation is surely new to most Americans.
Although those of us living in recovery know it is a mere falsehood or stigma, for decades, alcoholism and drug addiction were considered a moral failing of the weak, and those who died from drug overdoses asked for it. It is only now, when addiction has welcomed its way into suburban homes and the offices of the elite, that we are finally starting to pay attention.
On that note, let’s go over what started the opioid epidemic. The opioid crisis or epidemic began in the late 1990s when the medical world began treating pain differently. Rather than having someone miss work for an extended period after a surgical procedure or to avoid surgery altogether, medical professionals began prescribing medications such as OxyContin more often.
And why wouldn’t they? Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of the drug, presented a fraudulent description of the drug, having us believe it was less addictive compared to other opiate pain medications. Although the company lost $630 million in a lawsuit for downplaying the addictiveness of the drug, we are still feeling the aftereffects 20 years later.
The first wave of the opioid epidemic was felt when there was an increase in prescribed opioids in the 1990s, with opioid overdose deaths in the U.S. consisting mostly of the prescription opioids that big pharma (the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies) promised were entirely safe. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Post-approval is usually left to the industry – not regulators – to educate and advise prescribers on how to evaluate and mitigate risk. Thus, even today, donations from opioid manufacturers to politicians continue to influence policy decisions. What’s more, many officials join the pharmaceutical industry from government regulatory agencies such as the Drug Enforcement Agency with little to no “cooling off” periods.3
The second wave of the opioid epidemic began in 2010, with rapid increases in heroin overdose deaths. This wave was followed by the third in 2013, with major increases in opioid overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids, particularly illicitly manufactured drugs like fentanyl. The market for illicitly manufactured opioids continues to evolve, with fentanyl now being found in heroin, counterfeit pills, and non-opioid substances like cocaine.4
As we previously mentioned, prescription medications are not the only culprit in drug overdoses across the country. Several other considerations certainly play a role in the overdose crisis. Other drugs involved in U.S. overdose deaths include, but are not limited to, synthetic drugs like fentanyl-laced heroin and benzodiazepines, as well as counterfeit pills that are making their way into our country via internet sales, Chinese labs, and Mexican cartels.
Opioid Crisis Solutions: What’s Being Done?
It’s clear that the drug epidemic has gotten out of control. If you’re not fully aware, just take a look at the numbers. We have included two graphs that we would like you to consider. The first is a graph of substance abuse-related deaths compared to those we have lost to wars, such as WWI, WWII, and the Vietnam War. The second graph illustrates opioid-related drug overdoses in 2014, broken down by each state.
As these numbers are staggering, you may wonder, how have we gotten to this point, and where do we go from here? Although our legislators have begun to take the necessary steps to fight drug overdoses and the crisis in which we find ourselves, is it enough?
Consider this…our country has spent several trillion dollars on foreign wars, yet the 21st Century Cures Act has allocated $2 billion for the addiction problem in America.5 Additionally, that is to be spent over a two-year period and dispersed over all 50 states. The numbers simply do not add up.
Yes, $2 billion is a large sum of money, but when broken down, this is what we get… 21 million Americans are suffering from addiction.6 When you divide that $2 billion, each person would get roughly $95. Now, considering that 1 in 10 people receive treatment in the U.S., and the Cures Act’s intention is to address those that do not receive the help they need, we will only include them in the equation.
So 90% of the 21 million Americans are 18.9 million. $2 billion divided amongst those individuals would give everyone roughly $105 for medically supervised detox and addiction treatment. Seeing as an average rehab stay can cost thousands of dollars, not to mention the money it would cost to implement new prevention methods and criminal justice programs, it is clear our efforts have not even begun to scratch the surface.
Opioid Treatment Programs Can Help
Treating addiction has certainly evolved in the last few decades. New treatment modalities have been introduced, and approaches have been taken. The ironic part is that many medical professionals and government officials are now leaning in the direction of medication-assisted treatment as the “go-to” treatment option. Although we understand that, in certain scenarios, this modality can be beneficial, it should not be considered in every case, and nor is it the solution. Nevertheless, those who have received an award grant from the Cures Act plan to spend most of the allocated amounts for this modality.
It’s puzzling as to why we always fall back to the crutch of medication. It’s the reason why we find ourselves in the worst health crisis of the last 100 years, yet professionals across the country feel it’s the best way to address the problem. If we simply want to avoid drug overdoses, then yes, this medicine will certainly do that. But if we want to eradicate addiction and treat the disease, it will require much more than a quick fix.
Drug addiction needs to be addressed on all fronts. From physical symptoms to mental and emotional concerns to healing the spirit, addiction treatment must tackle every aspect of the disease. Thankfully, there are still countless professionals and drug rehabs still available that believe in treating the whole person rather than hoping a medication will solve our problems.
If you or a loved one is suffering from drug addiction, you should know all your options. Educate yourself on substance abuse, the warning signs and symptoms, and the various treatment modalities. It will take much longer to address the addiction problem in our country than it did to create it, but we must start somewhere.
Get Opioid Addiction Help at Clearbrook
If you or a loved one is suffering from an opioid use disorder, please don’t wait until it’s too late. Help is available, and recovery is possible. For more than 40 years, Clearbrook Treatment Centers has been providing effective drug and alcohol addiction treatment to thousands.
We have had the privilege of watching many restore their lives and relationships through the process of recovery. The same can happen to you. We offer opioid addiction treatment in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, as well as opioid detox services to ensure patients receive care for both their physical and mental symptoms.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – Death Rate Maps & Graphs
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – Prescription Opioid Overdose Death Maps
- Harvard T.H. Chan – What led to the opioid crisis—and how to fix it
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – Understanding the Opioid Overdose Epidemic
- KHN – $2B In Federal Grants To Fight Opioid Epidemic Doled Out To ‘Communities Where Help Is Most Needed’
- AAMC – 21 million Americans suffer from addiction. Just 3,000 physicians are specially trained to treat them.