The opioid epidemic is a public health crisis that began in the late 90’s and continues on today. The rates of abuse associated with opioids have elevated to concerning levels and continue to rise. According to the CDC, for the 12-month period leading up to April 2021 opioid involved deaths rose by nearly 76,000.

Abuse of prescription pain medication is a primary reason for these deeply concerning numbers. It has taken public perception of opioid addiction, which was once associated deeply with heroin and street crime and revealed as something that could happen to anyone.

Chronic pain is extremely common. Since nearly a third of the country suffers from chronic pain, many have a close friend or family member on an opioid-based medication. Most Americans, however, are unaware of the factors causing a sharp rise in cases or what can be done to stop them.

Staying informed about the risks of opioid addiction and abuse can help Individuals using prescription painkillers and their loved ones stay safe and avoid being just another statistic of this public health crisis.

What are Opioids?

Opioids are a term for a class of synthetic and partially synthetic medications derived from the opium poppy plant. They include illicit substances such as heroin as well as many prescription medications including:

  • Hydrocodone (Hysingla®, Zohydro ER®)
  • Hydrocodone/Acetaminophen (Lorcet®, Lortab®, Norco®, Vicodin®)
  • Oxycodone (Oxycontin®, Xstampza ER®, Roxicodone® and Percocet®)
  • Methadone (Dolophine®, Methadose®)
  • Fentanyl (Abtiq®, Abstral® Duragesic®)
  • Morphine (MSiR®, MS-Contin®)
  • Codeine (Fioricet®, Fiorinol®)
  • Hydromorphone (Dilaudid®, Exalgo ®)
  • Meperidine (Demeral®)
  • Tramadol (Conzip®, Ultracet®, Ultram®)
  • Alfentanil (Alfenta®)
  • Buprenorphine (Belbuca®, Buprenex®)

How Do Opioids Work?

Opioids relieve pain and relax the body by binding to receptors in the body’s internal opioid system thus blocking its pain signals. These drugs also create a sense of euphoria by releasing high levels of dopamine in the nervous system. Dopamine has been known to contribute to habit forming behaviors and can elevate one’s risk of developing opioid use disorder (OUD).

What Caused the Opioid Epidemic?

In the late 90’s, a new generation opioid-based prescription painkillers entered the market. Prescription drug companies (most notably Purdue Pharma) had promised the medical community that their medicines were less addictive–even using marketing tactics that encouraged doctors to recommend their brand to patients.

As a result, doctors being began overprescribing opioid-based painkillers believing them to be safe. Because of the addictive potential of opioids, prescriptions managed poorly quickly resulted in widespread abuse.

Who Does Opioid Addiction Affect?

Some believe that developing a drug addiction is simply a matter of poor choices and bad character. Opioids being highly addictive substances, don’t discriminate. Instead, opioid use disorder (OUD) is a complex disease determined by a variety of factors including:

  • Genetics – Genes inherited from our family lines are believed to account for 40% – 60% of a person’s risk for developing an addiction. This is mainly why addiction tends to run in families.
  • Environmental – Factors related upbringing, socioeconomic status, life challenges, relationships and more can play a significant part the tendency to develop substance use problems. In addition, environmental factors can also play a significant role in relapses.
  • Mental Health – Having additional mental health disorders including ADHD, depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia can both increase one’s risk for developing an addiction and even occur as a result of abuse.
  • Physical Health – Many individuals abuse drugs to compensate for physical issues. People using opioids (either legally or illegally) to treat chronic pain is just one example. Another would be a person using a stimulant because they feel tired often and want the extra boost.

Drug abuse overtime tends to cause more health problems than it solves. When dependency develops, the body can experience uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms in between fixes.

Approximately 100 million Americans deal with chronic pain.1 Individuals taking opioids as prescribed by a doctor are still at risk of developing an opioid dependency. Because these individuals are talking these prescriptions daily, they will inevitably develop some level of tolerance. Feeling their usual dose lacking efficacy, the person may start taking more than their recommended dosage.

This kind use, however, can be a dangerous game, leading to dependency and ultimately drug addiction. When taking these medications, it is important to only use them in the amount prescribed; talking to your doctor if you think you may be becoming dependent on your medication.

Opioid addiction doesn’t only effect those struggling with substance abuse. For friends and loved ones, witnessing the challenging and self-destructive behaviors of an addicted person can often be a source of significant grief.

As Individuals progress through addiction, their ability to hold down jobs, manage finances and contribute to family life significantly wanes. This can cause families to buckle under the pressure of addiction and eventually fracture.

Opioid addiction and abuse can also put strain on the community at large. According to an article from PEW, problems associated with opioid abuse account for $35 billion in medical costs, $14.8 billion in criminal justice expenses and $92 billion lost in labor productivity.

Solving the Problem of Opioid Addiction and Abuse

Solving the opioid crisis will require dedication of not only state and local governments but members of the community and their families as well. One crucial step to ending the As new regulations clamp down on overprescribing, the problem of people moving on to harder, upticks in the abuse of dangerous opioids such as fentanyl and heroin have occurred, 

If you or a loved one exhibits signs of addiction, call a treatment provider right away. Addiction does not have to be the end of the road; it might simply be a detour.


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