There’s no other way to put it. We’re facing an opioid addiction crisis in the United States.
Opiates are narcotics that change the way the brain responds to pain stimuli and can also produce a “high” feeling by disrupting the reward and pleasure centers in the brain. Repeated use or abuse of an opioid drug can change the way an individual’s brain chemistry works and lead to physical and psychological dependence. The body may not feel normal anymore without the drug.
When taken as directed, opioids can manage severe pain effectively over a short amount of time. With long-term use, patients need screening and monitoring to prevent them from developing an addiction or physical dependence on the medications. Recent research shows that opioid abuse has a direct link to heroin.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports a staggering set of numbers:
- Overdose deaths involving prescription opioids were five times higher in 2016 than 1999, and sales of these prescription drugs have quadrupled during that same time.
- In 2014, almost 2 million Americans abused or depended on prescription opioids
- From 1999 to 2016, more than 200,000 people have died in the U.S. from overdoses related to prescription opioids.
- Every day, more than 1,000 people receive treatment in emergency departments for misusing prescription opioids.
- More than 46 people die every day from overdoses involving prescription opioids.
This epidemic is why physicians and pharmacists are increasingly raising the bar on who can receive opioid medications, how much, and for how long. The risk of addiction is not their only concern. Long-term use of opioids can also make pain worse by decreasing your ability to tolerate pain and increasing sensitivity to pain. In fact, people taking opioids over long periods may keep having pain—or may see their discomfort increase—long after the original cause has healed.
Withdrawal symptoms can be severe depending on the level of addiction. Signs appear within a few hours of the last dose, and the symptoms can last for a week or more. Some psychological symptoms and cravings may continue for much longer. Unassisted withdrawal may not be life-threatening, but it can lead to relapse. Medications and therapy through medical detox may make relapse less likely.
One solution to prevent the crisis is to improve the way medical professionals prescribe opioids. Proper guidelines can ensure patients have access to safer, more effective chronic pain treatment while reducing the number of people who abuse these drugs. In 2016, the amended CDC Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain recommended lower doses and stricter monitoring efforts. And while previous guidelines focused on “high risk patients,” the new recommendations address the risk to all patients.
There is also a wide range of safer options for managing pain. A Fellowship Trained Interventional Pain Doctor would start with a thorough examination to tailor treatment to you. Most patients start with physical therapy and a prescription of non-narcotic pain killers to address stiffness and inflammation. From there, options include localized steroid injections or nerve blocks and a Radiofrequency Ablation, which uses heat and radio signals to destroy small nerves that supply the source of your pain.
The crisis won’t go away overnight. However, if everyone takes a moment to educate themselves about the problem, we can work together to solve it.