What You Need to Know About Opioids and The Opioid Epidemic

Origin of Opioid Abuse

With the introduction of evidence supporting the use of prescription opioids to treat chronic pain due to its ‘painkilling’ effectiveness, opioids became the leading treatment for various forms of chronic pain. This was a significant paradigm shift during the 1900s when doctors began prescribing opioids to problems such as back pain or sports injuries, where previously they were only used to treat acute pain or post-operatively. However, in the past few decades, the prescription of opioids has skyrocketed because Purdue Pharmaceuticals, the makers of OxyContin, began marketing their opioid as non-addictive. As a result, opioid abuse and addiction have become an epidemic.

How Do Opioids Work?

Opioids affect the way your brain processes pain; it does not actually make the pain leave your body. Opioids attach to your opioid receptors which protrude from particular nerve cells found in the brain. Once they’re on, the nerve cells communicate to the brain information regarding the severity of the pain which isn’t true. As a result, the person taking the opioid begins to notice a decrease in the severity of their pain dramatically.

Opioids also work through the brain’s reward center, releasing a large amount of dopamine which affects how the brain experiences pleasure. A person taking opioids will feel not only a decrease in their pain but also extreme euphoria and intense relaxation. Tolerance develops rapidly, and users will need to increase their dosage to experience the same or a higher feeling of extreme pleasure. This leads to dependency and quickly addiction.

How Effectively Do They Treat Pain?

While studies are recognizing that opioids could be effective for treating chronic pain; there are also several other alternatives that could be considered just as, if not more, effective without the severe risk for abuse and addiction.

How Big is The Problem?

It’s estimated that 20-29% of those who are prescribed opioids abuse them. Opioid overdose has risen by 30% from 2016 to 2017 across the United States; the number of opioid prescriptions has increased by five times from 1999 to 2010. The opioid epidemic doesn’t just affect the US; the UK is experiencing a similar crisis with the increased abuse of opioids. In addition to increased abuse of opioids, there has been an increase in other problems relating to opioid abuse such as neonatal abstinence syndrome, where there’s been a steady rise in children being born showing withdrawal symptoms from opioids. The opioid epidemic is also directly increasing heroin abuse, which is revealed to be affecting the older demographics.

What is Being Done?

Medical facilities are exploring more efficient methods to manage and track patients who are exposed to opioids. In an attempt to fight the epidemic, the National Institute of Health is searching to expand treatment centers for opioid use disorders. The NIH is also investigating safe, non-addictive ways to treat chronic pain. By creating an efficient prescription drug monitoring system, physicians and doctors could be able to identify and provide assistance to those at high risk for developing an abuse disorder for opioids. The NIH is also trying to increase the availability of overdose-reversing drugs such as Narcan or naloxone, which reverse the effects of an opioid overdose and can assist those who are being harmed from an opioid use disorder.