Prescription drugs for pain, known as opioids or narcotics, can provide individuals with relief from severe discomfort. However, the use of these medications comes with a high risk of addiction. In fact, prescription drug abuse has been on the rise over the past several years. Learn more about the facts and figures behind this growing problem.
Commonly Abused Prescription Pain Meds
Although you can take too much of an over-the-counter medication, abuse of prescription pain medications is more common. Opioid drugs are much more potent, leading to more intense effects and a pronounced euphoria, also known as a “high.” Some common types of prescription pain opioids include:
Risk Factors of Prescription Drug Abuse
While it is possible for anyone to become addicted to prescription opioids, some individuals are at higher risk than others. If you have one or more of the following risk factors, you might have an increased risk of developing an opioid addiction. These risk factors include:
- Past or current addictions to other substances, including alcohol
- Psychiatric or emotional conditions
- A family history of substance abuse
- Easy or convenient access to prescription pain medications
- Exposure to peer pressure especially among teenagers and adolescents
- Lack of understanding of the potential harm associated with opioids
Prescription Drug Abuse and Misuse
How many people in the U.S. have misused prescription opioids?
The CDC reports that between 21 and 29 percent of those who take prescription opioids for chronic pain end up abusing them. Roughly 1,000 people or more end up in emergency rooms for treatment each day after misusing these medications. Using prescription drugs outside of their intended use or dosage puts these patients at a higher risk of developing an addiction. In 2014 alone, close to two million people in the U.S. struggled with prescription drug abuse or dependency on pain medications.
Signs and Symptoms of Prescription Drug Abuse
When an individual becomes addicted to prescription pain medications, they may experience both physical and cognitive symptoms as well as changes in behavior. Signs and symptoms of prescription drug abuse include:
- Coordination problems
- Euphoria or a “high” feeling
- Slower respiratory rate
- Feeling drowsy
- Lack of sound judgment
- Mood swings
Abuse of prescription drugs might also lead to the following behavior changes and consequences:
- Thoughts or questionable actions to acquire more opioids.
- Seeing more than one prescribing doctor, simultaneously.
- Taking increasingly higher doses of prescription pain medications to experience the original effects.
- Engaging in risky behaviors, due to poor judgment.
- Intolerance with relationships.
- Decrease in professional or academic performance
Prescription Drug Overdoses
The abuse of prescription opioids in the U.S. has led to a steep increase in the number of drug overdoses per year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that opioid overdoses caused 33,000 fatalities in 2015. Fatalities rose to 42,000 in 2016. Among these deaths, roughly 40 percent involved the use of prescription opioids. Moreover, approximately 91 people in the U.S. die each day due to opioid overdoses. Generally, those between 25 and 54 years old had the highest overdose rates related to prescription opioids.
The Real Cost of the Opioid Epidemic
Prescription opioid abuse in the U.S. comes at a high financial price. According to the CDC, this epidemic costs an estimated $78.5 billion per year. This figure includes costs associated with treatment and rehabilitation, a loss of productivity in the workplace, healthcare services for related physical ailments and legal fees. But is this the only cost? What is the cost of all the lives lost or the broken families? Overall, there is no way to quantify the suffering caused by opioid addictions.
History of the Prescription Opioid Crisis
In 1995, Oxycontin was aggressively introduced in the pain management market. In that same era, pain doctors and clinics begin to surface in large numbers. Meanwhile, prescription painkiller sales were hitting record numbers. Drug companies repeatedly claimed their drugs were safe and patients weren’t at risk for addiction. Patients’ need for instant pain relief caused doctors to focus only on the symptoms while disregarding the risks. Consequently, doctors began writing more and more prescriptions until a link between the opioids and the surge of dependent patients was undeniable.
May of 2007- The federal government filed criminal charges against pharmaceutical giant, Purdue Pharma, in connection with their false and misleading marketing efforts of Oxycontin. Purdue and three of its top executives pleaded guilty on criminal misdemeanor charges and agreed to pay $634.5 million for criminal and civil fines.
May 2015- The DEA announced the arrest of 280 people in its most extensive prescription drug sting operation, including 22 doctors and pharmacists.
March 2016- The CDC published new guidelines and recommendations for prescribing medications for pain management.
March 2017- President Trump calls for an executive establishment order for a Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis.
September 2017, CVS pharmacy chain implements restrictions on filling prescription opioids.
October 2017, President Trump declares the opioid crisis a National Public Health Emergency.
Finally, in the last two years, we have seen a number of efforts put forward to solve this crisis. Despite these efforts, the number of overdoses and fatalities involving prescription opioid abuse have continued to rise. The latest data shows that drug overdose fatalities in the US rose by nearly 21% between 2015 and 2016. These tragic deaths went from a record high of more than 52,000 to a staggering record of 64,000 deaths.
What is the Solution?
Some believe prescription drug abuse is what ignited the crisis. However, research points to a combination of factors. Therefore, there is not a one-step solution. Instead, there is a combination of efforts needed from many different people. Some of these include:
- More efficient and accessible drug treatment.
- Individualized and comprehensive mental health care.
- Responsible medical practices.
- Stronger administration and control of prescribing practices and pharmaceutical products.
- Tighter border control to block the importation of heroin and Fentanyl.
- Pharmaceutical companies’ accountability.
- Dependency and mental health treatment starting in emergency rooms.
- A “no stigma” national campaign involving substance abuse and mental illness.
Ultimately, all of these steps will come with a tremendous amount of effort and undeniably, with a cost. The number of opioid deaths in 2017 is very likely to set another record, but in 2018 we can make a change. We need to unite and protect our children. We have the science and the resources. Now we need to implement them wisely and start saving lives.