Americans have made headlines for having the highest number of drug overdose deaths in U.S. history in a single year. In 2016, it is estimated that more than 60,000 people in the U.S. died from drugs — a 19% increase over the country’s 2015 drug-related deaths. In fact, drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death among Americans under 50 — ahead of car crashes, gun deaths and HIV/AIDS. The death rate from drugs is expected to climb still higher in 2017, due mainly to the opioid drug epidemic that is sweeping the country. An added problem is that more powerful drugs like fentanyl and its analogs (i.e., carfentanil), are being used by drug dealers to create cheaper opioids or to extend supplies of cocaine and heroin — sneaky practices that drive up drug trafficking profits, but raise the risk of overdose for desperate buyers. Emergency medical responders report that people taking drugs laced with these stronger substances are harder to save — even multiple doses of the anti-overdose medication naloxone/Narcan doesn’t always revive them.
Allergic to Pain, Addicted to Pain Pills
For most people who abuse opioids or opiates, it all began with prescription painkillers — either their own or someone else’s. The rate of opioid painkiller prescriptions given by U.S. doctors has increased dramatically in recent years, leading one to think we are a nation in pain. It has been reported that 100 million Americans suffer from chronic pain, though the number of pain pill prescriptions far exceeds 100 million. People in America use more opioids than people in any other country in the world. A recent report on prescription drug use reveals that Americans are using opioids more than they are using tobacco, with over 2 million dependent on opioids, according to current estimates. How did this happen? There was a push in the medical profession to help more patients manage their pain, and because opioid painkillers are so effective (until they’re not), doctors started prescribing them with regularity in the 1980s … before many in the medical community understood just how addictive they were. And, before patients knew enough to request non-addictive alternatives. Often prescribed after a surgical procedure or to alleviate chronic pain, opioids like Vicodin, Norco (hydrocodone) or OxyContin and Percocet (oxycodone) can have a sedative, euphoric side effect. For some people, this side effect alleviates another kind of pain — it takes the edge off the stresses of daily life. People taking opioid pills can build up a physical tolerance to them, needing increasing doses to achieve the same level of relief or pleasure they experienced at the outset — and a higher dose can lead to a higher “high.” They start taking a few extra pills and end up physically addicted within a matter of days. Withdrawal symptoms from opioids can produce even more agony. The addict refills the prescription, starts popping pain pills by the handful, begins doctor-shopping to get more prescriptions wherever possible, and finally turns to street dealers to get more opioids or heroin, their cheaper opiate cousin. Young people have access to pain pills. When prescription painkillers are kept in the family medicine cabinet, they can end up in the wrong hands — teenagers are reporting that they get opioid painkillers at home and share them with friends to get high. They, too, are becoming addicted and increasing their risk for overdose.
Getting Treatment for Opioid Addiction: Detox and Rehab Can Turn Things Around
Withdrawal from opioids is agonizing, making professional detox and addiction treatment imperative to recovery — but recovery is possible. At addiction treatment centers like Promises Malibu, medically monitored detox from opioids is a first step, usually involving Suboxone, a medication that diminishes withdrawal symptoms from medications such as Vicodin, OxyContin and morphine as well as heroin and other drugs in the opiate/opioid category. Treatment staff assist patients in getting through the difficult emotional and physical withdrawal symptoms encountered during detox. But detox is only the beginning of the recovery story. Once a person is stabilized and free from the debilitating effects of opiate addiction, treatment continues as the brain and body readjust to life without these powerful drugs. Opioids alter how the brain is wired for motivation and reward, including the rate at which feel-good neurotransmitters like serotonin, endorphins and dopamine are released. It can take a few weeks for the brain’s reward pathways to return to a balanced, pre-addictive state. Some patients experience anxiety during the adjustment phase and that, too, is treated in rehab. While physiological changes are taking place, the patient receives psychiatric counseling and group support to address the psychological and emotional aspects of addiction and pain management. With guidance and support from the care team, recovering addicts can begin using alternative therapies to manage pain and related issues. The goal of treatment is to guide people back to a balanced approach to pain management, often through the use of non-habit-forming medication used in combination with therapies that provide comfort and relief. Some alternative therapies might include massage, acupuncture, physical therapy, yoga, art therapy and neurofeedback, among others. Bringing more people to treatment programs that specialize in opioid and opiate addiction is essential to resolving the U.S. drug crisis and halting the alarming number of overdose deaths we are seeing. Sources: Drug Deaths in America Are Rising Faster Than Ever. Josh Katz. The New York Times, June 2017. How the opioid epidemic became America’s worst drug crisis ever, in 15 maps and charts. Drug overdoses now kill more Americans than HIV/AIDS did at its peak. These maps and charts tell the story. German Lopez and Sarah Frostenson. Vox, March 2017. America’s Addiction to Opioids: Heroin and Prescription Drug Abuse. Presented by Nora D. Volkow, MD, Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control. National Institute on Drug Abuse, NIH, May 2014.