In this post, Gwen reviews the rising epidemic of opioid abuse, and what you can do if you suspect you or someone you love may be addicted.
Opium, derived from poppies, has been used for thousands of years to alleviate pain. Prescription drugs like methadone, oxycodone (OxyContin®), hydroxycodone (Vicodin®), and fentanyl (Fentora®), all work through the same basic biochemical pathways as opiates such as heroin. They interact with opioid receptors in the brain that regulate pain perception and that are involved in the brain’s central reward system, which is part of why they’re so addictive.
It’s estimated that 1.9 million Americans had substance abuse issues related to prescription opioid pain medications in 2014, the most recent year for which data are available. According to data released by the Centers for Disease Control – the CDC – deaths from opioid overdose have quadrupled since 1999.
Opioid addiction is a problem that cuts across economic lines – an ongoing investigation by The Guardian reveals how prescription drug addictions have been fueled by pill mills until recent crackdowns that have led to a surge in heroin addiction.
At a hearing before the Senate Judiciary committee earlier this year on heroin and prescription drug abuse, the director of the National Institute of Drug Abuse, Dr. Nora Volkow, called prescription opioid abuse a “public health epidemic,” citing not only deaths from overdose, but also increasing incidence of newborns with health problems resulting from exposure to opiates in utero, and the increases in hepatitis C and HIV infections from dirty needles.
Are Opioids Addictive?
In a word, YES, they’re highly addictive. Almost 1 in 5 people who try heroin will become addicted to it. That bears repeating: almost 20% of people who try heroin become addicts. Initial exposure to opioids causes euphoria and a sense of well being, but after prolonged use, addicts continue using to avoid painful withdrawal symptoms.
Most Americans are familiar with the dangers of heroin from popular culture. But more recently developed and aggressively marketed prescription pharmaceutical opioids can be as addictive, or even more addictive than heroin, which itself was developed over a century ago as an analgesic that was initially believed to be less addictive than opium. Fentanyl, the most recently FDA-approved opioid, came to market a decade ago and is 40-50 times more potent than heroin.
Signs of Addiction
Are you worried that you or someone you love may be addicted to prescription opioids? Here are some warning signs of opioid addiction:
Treatment for opioid addiction usually includes a combination of behavior therapy and medications:
Dealing with addiction can feel very overwhelming and isolating. If you or someone you love is struggling with an opioid addiction, please know that you’re not alone. Reach out for help today.
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 Injury Prevention & Control: Opioid Overdose, Overview of an Epidemic. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/data/index.html. Updated March 14, 2016. Accessed May 29, 2016.
 America’s Addiction Epidemic. http://www.theguardian.com/us-news/series/americas-addiction-epidemic. Accessed May 29, 2016.
 DrugFacts: Heroin. National Institute on Drug Abuse. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/drugfacts/heroin. Updated October 2014. Accessed May 29, 2016.
 Le Merrer J, Becker JA, Befort K, Kieffer BL. Reward processing by the opioid system in the brain. Physiol Rev. 2009 Oct;89(4):1379-412.
 Injury Prevention & Control: Opioid Overdose, Fentanyl Overdose Data. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/data/fentanyl.html Updated May 10, 2016. Accessed May 29, 2016.
 Preda A. Opioid Abuse Clinical Presentation. MedScape. http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/287790-clinical Updated March 16, 2016. Accessed May 29, 2016.
 Opiate and opioid withdrawal. National Library of Medicine MedlinePlus. https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000949.htm. Updated May 3, 2015. Accessed May 29, 2016.
 Principles of Drug Addiction Treatment: A Research-Based Guide (Third Edition). National Institute on Drug Abuse. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/principles-drug-addiction-treatment-research-based-guide-third-edition/frequently-asked-questions/what-drug-addiction-treatment. Updated December 2012. Accessed May 29, 2016.
 FDA approves first buprenorphine implant for treatment of opioid dependence [FDA news release]. http://www.fda.gov/newsevents/newsroom/pressannouncements/ucm503719.htm. Published May 26, 2016. Accessed May 29, 2016.
 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website. http://www.samhsa.gov. Accessed May 29, 2016.
 Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website. https://findtreatment.samhsa.gov/ Accessed May 29, 2016.
Gwen Murphy, PhD, has been in medical and science writing since 2006. She is passionate about women's health, precision medicine, public health, parenting, mindfulness, and social justice in medicine.