According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service, more than 130 people die each day from opioid-related drug overdoses, while there are 2.1 million with an opioid use disorder. Of the 42,000 opioid overdose deaths in 2016, an estimated 40% of those involved a prescription opioid such as OxyContin® or Vicodin®. And in 2017, an astonishing 68% of the more than 70,200 drug overdose deaths involved an opioid.
But how did we get here?
The Opioid Crisis Timeline
Opioids have been around since 1700s Colonial America when doctors prescribed opium to their patients for pain management. In the 1830s, the U.S began manufacturing morphine. The first recorded concerns raised by doctors about the risk of morphine addiction came to light in the 1870s, but morphine continued to be sold as a treatment for everything from toothaches to menstrual cramps.
By the early 1900s, morphine addiction becomes a problem. Ironically, morphine was initially used as a substitute for opium, as opium addiction was on the rise. And with the increase in morphine addiction, the solution at the time was to replace the drug with a “non-addictive” alternative – heroin. Of course, we now know that heroin is more potent and even more addictive than morphine.
Publications were released in the 1980s, deeming prescription opioids as safe and non-addictive. One of them is a letter titled “Addiction Rare in Patients Treated with Narcotics,” which was published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
In the 1990s, there was a rise in the prescription of opioids for the treatment of pain. Pharmaceutical companies and medical societies assured the public that the risk of addiction to prescription opioids was very low. OxyContin made its debut in 1996, claiming to be less addictive than Vicodin and Percocet. And by the late 90s, 86% of patients who needed to manage cancer-related pain were using opioids.
The number of opioid-related addictions and deaths continued to grow over the years as prescription opioids continued to be marketed as effective and safe painkillers. The mortality of heroin addicts at this time was also on the rise. By 2012, a shocking 259 million prescriptions for opioid pain medication had been written. New forms of semi-synthetic opioids like hydrocodone and oxycodone were eventually introduced, along with the fully synthetic opioids, fentanyl and methadone. By 2015, the number of opioid overdose deaths has tripled since 1999, reaching 33,000.
It wasn’t until 2016 that we saw any real action to fight the opioid epidemic when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published specific guidelines for the prescription of opioids for patients with chronic pain. The CDC warns health practitioners of the risk and harm of long-term opioid use and encourages non-opioid therapies.
Why Are Opioids So Addictive?
Whether it’s heroin, fentanyl, or oxycodone, illegal, synthetic, and prescription opioids can be abused because of their highly addictive nature. Opioids trigger the release of the brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters or endorphins. Because they change your perception of pain, you feel fine for as long as the drug is in effect. However, as the effects wear off, and you start to feel pain again, you may experience a yearning to feel good again.
The problem is that as you begin to rely on opioids to keep feeling satisfied, your body may develop a tolerance and slow its production of endorphins. And when you start to feel the drug is no longer giving you as much pleasure, you may think that increasing the dosage will do the trick.
If you or someone you know may be struggling with a dependency on opioids, it’s time to reach out to those who can help. We’re here to talk whenever you are ready. Call (619) 630-7844.