Opioid use is on the rise in the United States, and we should be concerned. Commonly referred to as prescription painkillers, the number of opioid prescriptions nearly doubled from 2000 to 2010, with roughly the same number of patients visiting doctors for pain conditions in that time.

Opioids work on the receptors in the brain to decrease the patient’s perception of pain. These drugs can also produce a feeling of sedation and relaxation, or a feeling of euphoria in some cases. These side effects can be a pleasant change from a chronic pain condition and may lead to overuse by patients, especially those with a history of drug abuse or addiction. And this is where the trouble begins.

The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health that conducted the study indicating a rise in opioid prescriptions wrote that, “by 2008 the annual number of fatal drug poisonings surpassed those of motor vehicle deaths, and overdose deaths attributable to prescription drugs exceeded those of cocaine and heroin combined.” The Centers for Disease Control also indicate that drug overdose was the leading cause of injury death in 2010, and 60% of those overdoses involved prescription drugs. 78% of those deaths were unintentional. By far, opioids are implicated in the majority of drug overdoses; opioid prescription analgesics were involved in 75% of overdoses.

And there is more bad news about the connection between opioid misuse and accidental death: among people ages 25 to 64, drug overdose killed more people than car crashes in 2010.

Part of the problem may be over prescribing, but another factor is the way that opioids work on the brain. After continued use, the brain needs more of the drug to achieve that relaxed and pleasant state that it is used to, and people may not realize that they are in danger of overuse or addiction. Some of the problem is also access; children and adolescents have access to parental medicine cabinets with an increasing number of prescription painkillers in them. There is also easier access to prescription drugs online. In 2005, the Drug Enforcement Agency launched an operation that closed 22 internet pharmacies that were selling opioids with no prescription required, but follow-up studies did not indicate a decrease in availability, long-term.

Regardless of how they are obtained, the truth is that opioid misuse and abuse is a problem with fatal consequences. How can you protect yourself and your family?

Image by Marcel Oosterwijk via Flickr 


Weekly updates on conditions, treatments, and news about everything happening inside pain medicine.

You have Successfully Subscribed!