Opiate Addiction By the Numbers: Data You Can’t IgnoreAnna Ciulla
When most people think of drug addiction, they think about illicit drugs—not the medication doctors give us for pain. But it can take just one prescription for someone to become addicted to opiates.
Prescriptions for opiates such as hydrocodone, oxycodone, morphine, and codeine were once reserved to help people cope with short-term pain, but they are now increasingly being used for long-term chronic pain management. As a result, opiate prescriptions have nearly quadrupled in the past 10 years. In 2012, 259 million prescriptions were written for opiates.
Since opiates are legal and prescribed by a doctor, many people do not understand that they can be highly addictive. Opiates affect the brain regions involved in reward and give you a sense of pleasure. While this relieves pain, it can also become a feeling that you want to maintain, leading you to take a higher dose than prescribed. When you run out of medication, you may ask your doctor for a refill, or increased dosage, or even take prescriptions from a friend or relative.
When you start to abuse prescription medications, it is usually a sign that the addiction has already taken hold, and the consequences become more severe.
The Rise in Prescription Drug Abuse
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has declared prescription drug abuse a national epidemic. In 2014, approximately 1.9 million Americans met the criteria for prescription painkiller use disorder, and 1.4 million people used prescription painkillers non-medically for the first time.
When you use prescription painkillers for nonmedical use, you increase the likelihood of physical complications. Using prescription drugs in combination with other pharmaceuticals or alcohol increases your risk of hyperventilation and respiratory complications.
From 2004 to 2011, there was a 183 percent increase in medical emergencies from opiate abuse. By 2011, there were 1.2 million emergency room visits involving prescription drug abuse and 29 percent involved opiates. Opiate misuse is estimated to cost $72 billion in medical expenses each year.
Those dependent on opiates are also at risk for an overdose. In 2014, there were 18,893 overdose deaths related to prescription pain relievers. Each day, 46 people in the United States die from an overdose of prescription painkillers, and drug overdoses have surpassed car accidents as a leading cause of accidental death in the country.
When Opiates Lead to Heroin
If you become dependent on opiates, your tolerance for the drug increases, and it can be difficult to maintain a source of the prescription drug. You may be denied prescriptions from a doctor if he or she feels you are abusing the drug. Therefore, people turn to cheaper illicit drugs as alternatives, such as heroin.
Heroin use rose by 75 percent between 2007 and 2011. Those that are dependent on opiates are 40 times more likely to abuse heroin. The CDC reports that between 2011 and 2013, 45 percent of people who used heroin were also addicted to prescription painkillers. In recent studies, nearly half of young people who inject heroin reported abusing prescription opiates before starting heroin.
The physical and mental health effects of the drug are serious. Short-term effects of heroin include nausea, vomiting, and uncontrollable itching. Long-term heroin use leads to seizures, liver and kidney disease, and collapsed veins.
Heroin is particularly addictive because it enters the brain so rapidly. Unlike prescription opiates, you do not know the strength of the heroin you are purchasing or what it’s mixed with, resulting in a greater risk of overdose.
From 2002 to 2013, heroin overdoses nearly quadrupled, and 8,000 people died from the drug in 2013 alone.
Ending Opiate Dependence
Opiate addiction does not have to be a national epidemic. Addiction is a disease that requires medical attention, but as few as 10 percent of people receive treatment.
The stigma associated with drug addiction and the shame people feel when they have an addiction are often barriers to treatment. But when you view addiction as a medical issue, you may feel more comfortable seeking help.
It’s OK to feel hesitant or even fearful about seeking treatment for opiate addiction. It’s a big step. Addiction treatment is challenging, but experienced substance abuse treatment professionals will help you develop a path to recovery. Seeking help is the first step to wanting to end the cycle of addiction and returning to a better quality of life.