Opioid addiction in the United States has claimed thousands of lives. According to American Society of Prescription Medicine, in 2015, there were over 52,000 recorded deaths from opioid overdose. Four out of five current heroin addictions started with prescription painkillers. Opioids have proven themselves to be a huge problem across the United States, with concern growing as more and more lives are claimed by this epidemic.
The term “opioid,” when used in a clinical context, refers to a family of painkillers derived from the seeds of the poppy plant. In this family are the drugs oxycontin, hydrocodone, and morphine. Opioids are typically prescribed to treat chronic pain, or pain that last over an extended period of time. Chronic pain can range from arthritis to impacted teeth to broken bones. Opioids are considered some of the most effective treatments for these types of pain, as they have the greatest immediate effect in combating the patients’ suffering.
Unfortunately, opioids also suppress the function of the body’s nervous system. Overexposure to opioids can cause the heart or lungs to stop, leading to death. The prescription of opioids, then, can be a dangerous act. One may ask if it’s even worth it to prescribe opioids at all, given the dangerous nature of the drugs. It’s a valid question with a complicated answer.
Dr. Stephen Barnes, a veteran pharmacist of over 20 years, commented on the nature of opioid overdose: “If somebody has chronic pain, they’ve been dealing with that pain over a longer period of time. Existing with that pain over time, they want to find ways to alleviate that. Basically, typically, if they don’t get rid of it, they’re going to want more and more to handle that pain.”
Taking opioids, however, creates a vicious cycle. As stated, opioids tend to suppress the central nervous system, making simple actions difficult for the body to perform. “You’re causing respiratory depression. It’s kind of like a depressant where you’re affecting the pain nerves, but then you’re causing drowsiness and the heart rate to go down. Over time, you do that too much, it can cause your heart to quit beating,” Barnes said.
Rhonda Hostler, a registered nurse of 19 years, has seen different faces of opioid addiction over the years. Hostler noted in particular the transition from opioid dependence to heroin addiction. “Back in the early nineties, the use of medicine to treat pain was pretty restrictive, then it came out that if a patient’s not in pain, they’re going to recover much faster.”
“To make sure that patients are not in pain, either through an accident, or per surgery, they are being given medications to keep them out of pain, and these medications are incredibly addictive,” Hostler said.
Addiction is, in fact, one of the biggest problems with prescribing opioids, especially in treating acute pain. When people have accidents that leave them in great pain, they are able to exploit that pain to receive more and more medication.
“If a fifteen-year-old has a motorcycle accident or something like that, and they go to the emergency room, as they should, they’ve been given these medications, and this kid’s saying ‘Wow, this is great stuff.’ So they tell their doctor, ‘Hey, I’m still in pain,’” Hostler said.
Doctors will lose their license to practice if they overprescribe medication, which prevents them from prescribing opioids to one person too often. While this seems like a good deterrent for addiction, it does not always fulfill its intended purpose, as the patient is still addicted. Given the circumstances, the patient will then often turn to buying drugs off the street. According to Hostler, pills are often too expensive for people to afford, so they will turn to a cheaper alternative like heroin, continuing down the path towards further drug abuse.
Unfortunately, opioids are still needed to treat pain, so there is no easy answer to the question of how to manage the epidemic. Some have suggested a registry to hold doctors and patients accountable for prescription, but nothing of the sort has yet been put in place. For now, the opioid crisis continues without a clear solution.
SAMUEL CROSS-MEREDITH – Editor