Among all forms of drug abuse common today, perhaps none is more increasingly prevalent in the United States than opiate addiction. From poems and books about addictions to opiate pain relievers to blogs reporting success stories over these addictions, throughout our popular culture opiate addiction is more identifiable as a public health epidemic than ever before.
The statistics confirm what a problem opiate addiction is in our society: it’s estimated that more than 2.1 million people in the United States suffer from substance abuse disorders related to prescription opiates (with 12-17-year-olds the fasting growing demographic) such as hydrocodone, hydrocodone acetaminophen, oxycontin, Vicodin and others sold under such brand names as Percocet. And each year more and more health professionals are providing opiate addiction information and education to their patients when they prescribe these medications.
Although opiate addiction by state varies widely, the most current numbers show that the problem is worst in New Mexico and West Virginia, with California and other western states reporting addiction rates higher than the national average. Adding to the problem is the fact that between 1999 and 2010 sales of prescription painkillers to hospitals, physicians and pharmacies increased by 400 percent, and overdose deaths from those painkillers increased 300 percent in the same time period. Studies also show that 80 percent of prescription painkillers that fall into the opiate class are prescribed by only 20 percent of prescribers, mostly from primary care and internal medicine physicians rather than specialists. And lastly, abuse of prescription painkiller drugs account for more than 475,000 emergency room visits each year.
For those unsure what substances fall into the category of opiates, the definition centers around a group of drugs derived from opium—which comes from the poppy plant—that are used to alleviate pain. Opiates are often also defined as opioids or narcotics and include heroin as well as codeine, morphine and synthetic forms of the drugs such as Oxycontin.
Opiates can also be described as those drugs that produce a sense of wellbeing or euphoria, despite the fact that they are intended to treat acute and chronic pain resulting from injury and disease. Unfortunately, far too often patients taking opiates for legitimate health reasons quickly develop a tolerance, resulting in a need for more and more of the drug to achieve the same effect. And taking high dosages of opiates can easily lead not only to severe addictive conditions but also to death from cardiac or respiratory arrest as the body’s tolerance to the pleasurable effects of opiates develops much more quickly than tolerance to the drug’s dangerous side effects. In fact, the highly addictive nature of opiates is responsible for more than two million people in our country reporting abuse of pain medications within 12 months or less—that’s more than 5,500 people a day abusing a prescription drug.