Understanding the Opioid Epidemic

What is the U.S. Opioid Epidemic?

The U.S. opioid epidemic is a complex phenomenon that has resulted in an alarming amount of Americans overdosing from opioid use. The devastating opioid abuse epidemic resulted in over 33,000 deaths per year from a combination of prescription and illegal opioids. From 2000 to 2010, the number of opioid prescriptions written increased from 164 million to over 234 million. This has resulted in a massive increase in emergency department visits related to prescription opioids between 2004 and 2011. In 2015 there were 33,091 overdose deaths involving all opioids including heroin. What once started as prescribing opioid medications as pain relievers to help people manage their chronic pain has turned down the long dark tunnel of fentanyl, characterized by addiction and overdoses.

Understanding the Epidemic

According to The Journal of the Missouri State Medical Association, in 2011, 75 percent of the world’s opioid prescriptions were in the United States. That is an alarming number. Opioids are the most common cause of preventable death in America today. It is estimated that about 50 percent of opioid overdose deaths are from doctors’ prescriptions. From 1999 to 2014 opioid prescriptions quadrupled and there were more than 165,000 people who died from opioid-related overdoses. The sad truth is that doctors and their medical centers were given millions of dollars from big pharmaceutical companies to prescribe opioids like oxycontin.

An article published in the Pharmaceutical Journal, also mentioned that there are many factors that contributed to the high rates of prescribing opioids. These include, doctors misunderstanding the appropriate use and dosing of these medicines, demand for opioids by patients who have opioid dependency, and an increase in for-profit clinics having doctors prescribe the use of opioid products beyond what they should. Unfortunately, even if doctors were unaware, they played a huge role in the start of the opioid crisis. Since then it has transformed into the use of illegal drug heroin and now the synthetic drug fentanyl which is more powerful than heroin.

How did this happen?

The opioid epidemic started in the late 1990s when pharmaceutical companies told the medical community that people would not become addicted to prescription opioid pain relievers. Upon hearing that, healthcare providers started to prescribe opioid drugs at even greater rates. Unfortunately, this led to extensive misuse of the medication before people became aware that these drugs were truly addictive. This resulted in about 21 to 29 percent of people who are prescribed opioids for chronic pain misusing the drug and, of them, 8 to 12 percent becoming addicted. Then, opioid overdose rates began to surge. This resulted in 46,802 Americans dying in 2018 from opioid-related deaths including opioids, heroin, and fentanyl.

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What do we know about the opioid crisis?

The biggest thing we know about the opioid crisis is that the use of prescription opioid medications served as a gateway to stronger and more dangerous drugs such as heroin and even worse, fentanyl. According to the Substance Use Disorder and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), about 4 to 6 percent of people who misuse prescription opioids transition to heroin. Also, about 80 percent of people who use heroin, first misused prescription opioids. Another opioid addiction statistic mentioned in the article took place in 2009, in King County, Washington. Here 39 percent of individuals who used heroin had a dependence on prescription-type opioids first. Also mentioned in the study, from 2008 to 2009 in New York and Los Angeles individuals who injected heroin discussed prior addiction to prescription opioids. These opioid statistics are all highlighting the impact prescription opioids have on people, which often leads them to try heroin.

Three Waves of Opioid Overdose Deaths

The three waves of opioid overdose deaths occurred from 1999 to 2018 with almost 450,000 people dying from an opioid overdose. The first wave started in the 1990s with an increase in prescription opioids being prescribed that resulted in overdose deaths. These prescription opioids included both natural and semi-synthetic opioids and methadone. The first wave ended in 1999. The second wave no longer involved doctors and started in 2010 with a surge in overdose deaths. These deaths were attributed to the use of heroin. The third wave began in 2013, with another surge in overdose deaths. However, this time synthetic opioids were to blame. The synthetic opioid to blame here was illegally created fentanyl. The market is continually changing for fentanyl and it can be seen in heroin, counterfeit pills, and even cocaine.

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Combating the Opioid Overdose Epidemic

Responding to these concerns the federal government has enacted policies and regulations. In 2017 President Trump declared the opioid crisis in America a public health emergency. The Initiative to Stop Opioid Abuse was unveiled in 2018 as a way to combat the forces behind the opioid crisis. This is a 3 part initiative. Part 1 is to educate Americans about the dangers of opioid abuse in the hope of reducing demand and over-prescriptions of opioids. Part 2 involved reducing the supply of illegal drugs by cracking down supply chains both domestic and international. Finally, part 3 involves helping people who are struggling with addiction gain access to treatment and recovery.

The Center for Disease Controls and Prevention (CDC) has also responded to the opioid crisis and is dedicated to combating the opioid overdose epidemic and supporting states and local communities to identify outbreaks, collect data, provide care to communities, and respond to overdoses. The CDC is also working to monitor trends associated with opioid use, collect and analyze research, increase state and local capacity to deal with the opioid crisis, support healthcare providers, and increase public awareness of the problems.

You might be under the impression that your addiction to an opioid prescription is okay because it was prescribed to you by your doctor. That is just not the case. Prescription opioids are a gateway into darker substances like heroin and fentanyl. Overdose is possible no matter whether your addiction is to prescription opioids, heroin and or fentanyl. Any addiction can be managed with treatment. If it is negatively affecting your life, it is time to get help. If you or someone you love is addicted to an opioid such as an opioid prescription, heroin, or fentanyl, a high-quality rehab clinic can provide the support needed to overcome an addiction.  A rehab clinic can provide you or a loved one with medical support that can give you medications to ease the withdrawal process. It can also provide behavioral therapy to alter your state of mind from one that is addicted to drugs to one that is free of that heavy burden.


Medical disclaimer:

Sunshine Behavioral Health strives to help people who are facing substance abuse, addiction, mental health disorders, or a combination of these conditions. It does this by providing compassionate care and evidence-based content that addresses health, treatment, and recovery.

Licensed medical professionals review material we publish on our site. The material is not a substitute for qualified medical diagnoses, treatment, or advice. It should not be used to replace the suggestions of your personal physician or other health care professionals.

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