The opioid epidemic is impossible to ignore. Today, more people than ever feel the impact of opiate addiction – either directly as addicts themselves or indirectly as friends and family members of opioid addicts. But why is this? Heroin has been around for more than a century. And, synthetic opioids like fentanyl have been in use since the early 70s. In this guide, we’ll attempt to shed light on the driving forces behind the opioid epidemic as well as provide insight into the impact of this national public health crisis on your own life.
To understand how the opioid epidemic became what it is today, we must consider how people come to be dependent on these addictive drugs in the first place. Opioids include drugs like prescription painkillers, morphine, heroin and synthetic analogs like fentanyl, carfentanil and others. Until recently, the common perception of an opioid addict was a person who abuses the illicit street drug, heroin, and who matches the stereotypical portrayals we see on TV or in the movies. Unfortunately, this perception has never been more inaccurate or incomplete than it is right now.
Opiate addiction doesn’t just affect the young, risk-taking population, nor is it limited to the underserved, systemically marginalized segments of our society. The opioid epidemic transcends race, socioeconomic status and even age. Consider this recent statistic from the Center for Disease Control (CDC): In a single year, opioid overdose deaths claimed more than 33,000 lives.
Put another way, opioid overdose deaths killed about as many people as both car- and gun-related deaths separately. What’s more, these opioid overdose deaths aren’t strictly a result of illicit drugs like heroin. The CDC also found that nearly half of all opioid deaths involved prescription painkillers – many of which were legally obtained through a physician. This is not a mere coincidence. In the last 22 years, opioid painkiller prescriptions have increased by a staggering 172%. So, what does the heroin addict profile really look like? Increasingly, it looks a lot like the faces you see everyday.
The path to opioid addiction often begins with the use of prescription painkillers like OxyContin®, Percocet® and Vicodin® to treat chronic pain. But for many people, what begins in the doctor’s office can quickly spill out into the streets. Let’s take a closer look at how this happens through a fictional, but all-too-common, scenario.
Step 1: A patient complains to his primary care physician of chronic back pain.
Step 2: The physician is quick to prescribe an opioid painkiller to help manage the pain.
Step 3: Over time, the patient’s tolerance to the medication increases, and the pain returns.
Step 4: The physician increases the dosage, or recommends switching to a more potent drug.
Step 5: Once again, the patient’s increasing tolerance renders the medication ineffective.
Step 6: No longer comfortable increasing the patient’s dosage, the physician recommends non-narcotic pain management techniques.
Step 7: The patient reluctantly agrees to try the alternative treatments, but long-term opioid use has already altered the way his brain functions.
Step 8: The patient shops around for new doctors who will prescribe him the opioids he needs to function, or he seeks out illicit street drugs like heroin, which is cheaper and easier to obtain.
As you can see, in this example, the path to opioid addiction can be traced back to the same chronic pain that affects countless individuals across the country. While prescription painkillers can be used safely to treat short-term acute pain – following a surgery or after an injury – they should be considered a last resort for managing long-term chronic pain after non-narcotic treatment options have been explored.
All opioids work the same way. These chemicals mimic the natural endorphins our bodies produce and attach to regions of our brains that make us feel good. Unlike our own endorphins, though, these substances exert a much tighter grip, making their effects longer lasting and more pronounced. Here’s a brief overview of commonly abused opioids:
The same brain regions that cause the desirable euphoric highs also regulate our breathing. During an opioid overdose, a user’s breathing rate can slow to dangerous levels or even stop. If not revived in 1-3 minutes, irreversible brain damage or death is likely.
People who are experiencing a heroin overdose commonly exhibit three warning signs. These same overdose warning signs also apply to morphine, fentanyl and prescription painkillers.
If you observe someone with these symptoms, get help immediately. First responders are trained to intervene during an opioid overdose, and may be able to resuscitate the victim.
At The Raleigh House, we understand the true environmental, genetic and behavioral health factors that contribute to opioid addiction. That’s why we offer our residents a comprehensive heroin drug rehab program that helps people from all walks of life find the long-lasting recovery they deserve. To learn more about our treatment for painkiller addiction, our relationship-focused approach or our payment options, call us today! We are here to help.