How Often Are ER Visits the Result of Prescription Opioid Overdoses?
In a study published in the October 2014 issue of the journal JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers from several U.S. institutions compared the rate of emergency room visits for the treatment of prescription opioid overdoses to the rate of ER visits for the treatment of heroin overdoses. These researchers concluded that verified overdoses involving opioid medications occur far more often than verified overdoses involving heroin.
Illegal drug manufacturers make heroin from morphine, a substance that appears naturally in certain parts of the opium poppy plant. Like any other opioid substance, heroin reaches the brain through sites called opioid receptors and produces effects that include a slowdown of normal activity in the brain and spinal cord, a reduction in the affected individual’s ability to feel pain and a spike in a highly pleasurable sensation known as euphoria. When present below a certain amount (which varies from person to person), heroin does not critically interfere with the brain’s basic ability to control such essential functions as breathing and the circulation of blood through the body’s arteries and veins.
However, in a person experiencing a heroin overdose, the drug suppresses normal brain activity below a sustainable level and triggers disruptions in some of the body’s key automatic processes. Specifically, a person in the midst of a heroin overdose can lose consciousness, experience extremely irregular breathing, stop breathing entirely and/or experience cardiac arrest (a total stoppage of normal heart function). An overdose event can easily kill a heroin user.
Prescription Opioid Overdose
Prescription opioids have the same basic effect on the brain as heroin and other illicit/illegal opioid drugs. The key difference is that doctors only prescribe opioid medications under certain circumstances and attempt to eliminate the risks for an overdose or other serious problems by limiting the amount of any given medication consumed at once.
Unfortunately, significant numbers of people expose themselves to a potential overdose situation by intentionally or unintentionally consuming more of an opioid medication than prescribed by their doctors or, in many cases, consuming an opioid medication without a prescription in a recreational context. Many opioid medications are weaker than heroin or take a longer time to produce their peak effects. This means that they generally produce lower overdose risks, although any prescription opioid can potentially trigger an overdose event.
Heroin Overdoses Vs. Prescription Opioid Overdoses
In the study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers from Stanford University, the University of Pennsylvania, Brown University, the University of Arkansas and several other institutions used information from the 2010 version of a federal project called the Nationwide Emergency Department Sample (NEDS) to compare the national rates for prescription opioid overdose-related ER visits to the national rates for heroin overdose-related ER visits. In the year in question, the NEDS reported a total of 135,971 emergency room trips across the U.S. related to an overdose involving some sort of opioid substance.
When the researchers analyzed the gathered data, they concluded that more than two-thirds (67.8 percent) of all verified cases of opioid overdose in American emergency rooms in 2010 stemmed from the consumption of a prescription opioid medication. In contrast, just 16.1 percent of the recorded ER visits for opioid overdose involved the consumption of heroin. In 13.4 percent of all cases, emergency room doctors could not determine the specific type of opioid consumed by a person experiencing an overdose. In addition, 2.7 percent of all affected individuals overdosed after consuming a combination of at least two opioid substances.
The study’s authors concluded that slightly more than 84 percent of all prescription opioid overdoses resulting in a visit to an emergency room occur in cities. They also concluded that slightly more than half (53 percent) of all prescription opioid overdose victims who end up in an ER are women. In regional terms, people from the South have higher chances of visiting an emergency room for a prescription opioid overdose than people in any other part of the country. The authors note that just 1.4 percent of all opioid medication overdose victims who make it to an ER will die from their overdose episodes.