Opioid Overdose: How Do We Turn the Tide?
We still find ourselves in the middle of an opioid crisis. Opioid overdose deaths are out of hand, increasing year over year. How do we fight the battle? And who do we blame?
Absolutely, there’s more than enough blame to go around. It appears, in fact, that current policies are only worsening the problem.
We have elected politicians who are more interested in looking good to their constituents than in solving problems. We have DEA agents fighting daily in a war they cannot win. Our pharmaceutical companies are marketing painkillers like bubblegum to doctors who really don’t understand addiction but are writing scripts one after another.
Finally, we place blame on the substance abusers themselves who, according to some people, would be able to recover if they only had a little willpower and a better value system. I’ve witnessed fingers pointed at everyone.
Economics classes teach us the laws of supply and demand. This would lead us to think that if the pharmaceutical companies curtailed the distribution of painkillers, addiction rates would decrease.
Unfortunately, when legislation made it more challenging to get opioid painkillers in 2011, we witnessed the creation of the heroin market. But why? Why did people begin prescription opioids, to begin with? What causes the dangerous leap from opioids to heroin?
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How an Opioid Addiction Starts
It can be as innocent as a minor back injury at work or a high school football practice injury. The next thing you know, the doctor prescribes painkillers, and things feel better. Here’s the danger with opioids—they don’t only alleviate the pain. They ease the mind and smooth out the rough edges. They make the world around you feel kinder
My cousin started out on prescription opioids and later developed a heroin addiction, He was not a kid you’d ever have pegged as one who would turn to heroin. He was the least likely teenager you would think would abuse drugs.
But he was prescribed painkillers that were the gateway to addiction. From there, he figured out that heroin was easier to find and a lot cheaper.
Blind Trust in the Doctor Can Lead You Down a Dark Path
As parents, my uncle and aunt didn’t think even twice about what the doctor was prescribing. The physician was the authority on the matter, and my cousin still wanted to play football. A doctor wouldn’t prescribe medicine that wasn’t safe, right?
Here’s the reality. Many doctors don’t consider the long-term effects of painkillers. Worse yet, most of them were not trained to understand addiction. Often, they really don’t know their patients on a personal level beyond the limited office exams. They don’t perform a psychological evaluation before prescribing opioids. Therefore, they don’t know if the patient is prone to drug addiction. They prescribe this highly addictive drug, send you off to the pharmacy, and wish you good luck.
More Ways to Die Than Overdosing
Opioids serve the purpose of numbing the pain for patients, but they are nevertheless dangerous. Many argue for people who are in genuine pain every day and need the relief that only comes from painkillers.
One significant problem is that although virtually everyone knows that an opioid overdose can kill you, they often remain unaware of the other side effects of opioid painkillers. Some other dangerous side effects are mood swings, feelings of agitation, sleeplessness, malnutrition, anorexia nervosa, and even an increase in other types of pain. Opioid use can also trigger a dangerous heart arrhythmia called Long QT Syndrome—this causes sudden death with no prior warning.
Yes, some people legitimately need relief from long-term pain. However, we must set a goal of educating those patients taking them on the overall picture including the risk of addiction and these life-threatening side effects.
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Painkiller Marketing & Drug Addiction
While in his early twenties, my husband experimented with illegal substances; however, he never tried heroin. He feared he would become addicted to it. Fast forward to a terrible car accident, and the doctor prescribed opioid painkillers. Addiction overcame him quickly.
Never for a moment did he suspect that a doctor who specialized in chronic pain treatment would prescribe something that was unsafe or addictive. In that very doctor’s office, he saw evidence that the prescription was safe. From seeing those brochures to posters to postcards for opioids and synthetic opioids, patients feel a false sense of security.
Here’s what he did not know. The doctors are visited regularly by the drug company reps. The office receives gifts like luncheons, vacations, and bonus award monies for prescribing specific medications. Some doctors treat painkiller prescribing as a money making venture instead of educating their patients.
From Pain Pills to Heroin
When you examine the data on opioid overdose deaths, there was a small dip from around the time of the “opioid crackdown.” During to this dip, heroin use spiked, and that resulted in an enormous increase in overdose deaths.
The heroin market all but exploded after the nationwide opioid crackdown. We manufacture more opioids than the entire country will ever need. While we made it more difficult to obtain illegal opioids, the number of people dying from opioids has barely decreased. When you combine that with the increased deaths due to heroin abuse, we have not moved the needle. Instead, the problem continues to snowball.
Yes, we have issued warnings and made people aware of the cycle of addiction. However, we fail to treat it with the reverence that we should. Users ignore the warnings, believing that addiction will never happen to them.
People take legal drugs expect Docs to keep them safe. But opioids and heroin are deadly sisters.
Even with warning labels on the prescription bottles, literature issued by the pharmacist, dirty glances from pharmacy employees (due to the recent stigma of painkillers), the waiting period to get prescriptions filled, and the national database system, people are still abusing opioids.
We see the principles of supply and demand again. If people want it painkillers badly enough, someone will eventually supply it. Opioid abuse is on the rise still, even with all these controls in place. Plus, the heroin market continues its growth.
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Is There a Better Way?
Nobody has an easy answer to the prescription drug and heroin abuse dilemma. Users continue to trade one addictive substance for another one. Abuse of each of those substances continually rises.
Our DEA still makes laws to ensure that prescription drugs are monitored. Patients on pain medications must submit to regular drug testing. Plus, they impose limits on how many pills drug companies can make and how many doctors can prescribe.
This is not working. Why don’t we enact mandatory education for any patient who is prescribed painkillers? Why don’t doctors come up with a plan to wean their patients off of pain pills? What about addiction counseling during the period patients spend on these medications?
We can stop pharmaceutical lobbying and put the attention where it’s deserved: the substance user.
People need to understand that any one of us can become addicted to a prescription drug. Addiction does not target only the mentally ill, or minorities, or the impoverished. Anyone in the world can develop a dependency on opioid painkillers.
So far, legislation and the way we are fighting the war on drugs is not stopping the opioid crisis. Indeed, more people are dying every year.
On a personal level, if you are struggling, your best bet is to find help on your own for your opioid addiction – it’s apparent that help won’t be so readily handed from other sources. The same is true for your loved ones who are struggling with a heroin or opiate addiction.