Opioid addiction still a major health threat

Abuse of opioids such as prescription pain medications and heroin continue to plague communities.

Addictions to opioids such as heroin, morphine and prescription pain relievers continues to affect people from all demographics. According to the World Drug Report 2012 from the National Institute on Drug Abuse and United National Office on Drugs and Crime, between 26 and 36 million people abuse opioids worldwide.

Opioids can lead to physical dependence and possible addiction, which is why legal versions of opioids are carefully monitored and prescribed. Opioid addiction can cause long-term changes to the biological structures of the brain and affect brain function, according to the Association of American Physicians.

Opioid abuse is on the rise. A 2013 study titled “Global, regional, and national age-sex specific all-cause and cause-specific mortality for 240 causes of death, 1990-2013: A systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2013” and published in the Lancet found that use disorders resulted in 51,000 deaths worldwide in 2013, up from 18,000 deaths in 1990. While there’s no single underlying cause for this increase in opioid abuse, some say the greater number of prescriptions written for medications such as codeine, oxycodone and similar pain relief pills, and greater social acceptability of these drugs have contributed to the spike in opioid-related deaths.

Data from IMS Health’s National Prescription Audit indicates that, in the United States, the number of prescriptions for opioids like hydrocodone and oxycodone escalated from around 76 million in 1991 to nearly 207 million in 2013.

Opioids are highly addictive because they can produce a sense of well-being and euphoria in addition to the pain-blocking benefits for which they are designed. The National Institutes of Health says opioids act by attaching to specific proteins called opioid receptors, which are found on nerve cells in the brain, spinal cord, gastrointestinal tract, and other organs in the body. When these drugs attach to their receptors, they reduce the perception of pain; however, they can also produce drowsiness, mental confusion and nausea. Many opioid abusers develop a tolerance over time, requiring them to use more and more of the medication to reach the same level of efficacy.

When individuals addicted to opioids can no longer gain access to prescription pills, many turn to illegal means to satisfy their addictions and cravings. Many simply segue to heroin, which is cheaper and, in some communities, easier to obtain than prescription opioids. Many communities have seen heroin use spike considerably in recent years. Heroin is even more dangerous because of the transmission of other diseases through the sharing of intravenous syringes.

Opioid abuse is a problem affecting communities across North America. Shedding light on the epidemic can inspire people to support legislation designed to combat opioid abuse and addiction and prevent future generations from succumbing to opioid addiction.