Used correctly and carefully, opioid-based drugs can provide doctors with a critical healing tool, in assisting patients with relief from pain and discomfort. When abused, opiate painkillers can lead to physical tolerance, addiction, and even death from overdose.
Since 2010, the United States has been facing an epidemic of opioid abuse, with cases surfacing in greater and greater numbers. Recent CDC (Centers for Disease and Control Prevention) studies show that perhaps one of the most alarming factors is the age group with the most at risk.
What Are Opioids?
When experiencing a headache or minor aches and pains, it’s not unusual to reach for a bottle of aspirin, ibuprofen or acetaminophen in order to reduce the discomfort. For the majority of instances, these over the counter medications are more than enough to deal with any of the pains that may arise from normal day-to-day activities. They are non-habit forming, do not require a prescription and can be readily found in stores ranging from pharmacies to a supermarket.
There are some instances (such as severe injury or post-surgery) where a stronger type of painkiller may be required, and often opioid based medications are used. These drugs fall under a classification of habit-forming narcotics which work by acting on the body’s opioid receptors to producing effects similar to morphine. The term “opioid” is derived from “opiates,” which refers to both morphine and opium, two substances that have been used traditionally to reduce pain and also for recreational purposes. When used correctly, opioids can have a whole host of beneficial applications, ranging from pain relief to cough suppression. However, when taken in excess or inappropriately, opioids can cause great physical, emotional and even social harm.
The Rise of Opioid Painkillers and Heroin Addiction in the United States
There has been a substantial increase in drug overdose deaths in the United States from 1999 – 2015, with opioids showing one of the largest surges during that timeframe. According to the CDC, in 1999, there were 6.1 deaths from opioid overdose per 100,000 users; during 2015, that number skyrocketed to over 16 deaths per 100,000 users. Mortality rates increased among all age groups, but this recent report shows the greatest increase occurred in adults in the 55-64 year range. The states with the highest incidences of fatal overdose were West Virginia, New Hampshire, Kentucky, and Ohio. West Virginia alone saw some 41.5 deaths per 100,000 users, a rate over double the national average.
While prescription drugs traditionally have accounted for a majority of overdoses and deaths from opioids in the United States, deaths from heroin nearly tripled from 2010 to 2015. This increase has led to heroin addiction being the single greatest cause of opioid death in the United States, accounting for some 25 percent of all overdose deaths.
Who’s at Risk?
Opioid use disorder is a condition that can affect anyone regardless of race, financial background or nationality. Many sufferers of opioid use disorder are prescribed pain medication for valid reasons and then are simply unable to quit, once they have finished their course of treatment. Chronic pain sufferers are one such group of patients who may be only trying to find relief from their painful illnesses and a better quality of life. These patients often find themselves unable to stop the drug and are to ashamed to seek professional assistance.
Even though opioid addiction can strike anyone, those aged 45-54 had the highest incidences of overdose and death at 30 per 100,000. One of the factors believed to be most at fault for this drastic increase is a weakened national economy and the financial instability of this last decade. The National Bureau of Economic Research conducted a study that found evidence linking rising unemployment and poor job prospects, with an increase in drug abuse and overdose deaths.
After the financial collapse of 2008, many of those in the 45-54 age range saw themselves facing unemployment, rising debt, and decreasing job prospects. As one of the age groups most impacted by the recession, it should not come as a surprise to see a correlation in drug abuse and opioid dependency. Also, the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis found that the use of illegal drugs had a tendency to increase among those unemployed or working part-time when compared to those in full-time jobs. After a job loss, many older workers found themselves either completely out of the workforce or faced with part- time menial work, both potentially contributing factors to depression, anxiety and increased possibility for drug abuse.
Narcan (Naloxone) – Help is On the Way
Naloxone is a drug that has been used for years in emergency rooms and with anesthesia assisted drug detoxification procedures. However, emergency personnel and first responders are now trained to use Naloxone based injectors to fight off overdose-induced death in any place or condition; also, the Good Samaritan laws, allow lay people the ability to administer Naloxone and hopefully save a life. The vast availability of this life-saving drug represents a sea change and greater hope in the approach to an overdose. Allowing a bystander to reverse the effects of an overdose can provide the drug user with a second chance. By neutralizing the effects of opioids on the body, the use of Naloxone can allow the person to return and sustain a healthy breathing pattern and hopefully even reach a full recovery.
Drug Overdose Deaths in the United States, 1999–2015, CDC.gov. Retrieved on 03/07/2017.
Opioid Deaths Rise With Unemployment, Report Says, U.S. News and World Report. Retrieved on 03/07/2017.
Understanding the Epidemic, CDC.gov. Retrieved on 03/07/2017.
Understanding the Epidemic Opioid (Narcotic) Pain Medications, WebMD. Retrieved on 03/07/2017.
Understanding the EpidemicOpioid (Narcotic) Pain MedicationsNaloxone Won’t Rescue Us From The Opioid Epidemic, But It’s A Start, The Huffington Post. Retrieved on 03/07/2017.
What is naloxone?, Project Lazarus. Retrieved on 03/07/2017.