Over the course of the past several years, the American opioid epidemic skyrocketed immensely, and rates of overdose-related death are higher than they ever have been. The National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) reported that heroin-related deaths increased over 6-fold from 2002 to 2015. Of the 20.5 million Americans suffering from a substance abuse disorder in 2015, over 591,000 had a disorder directly involving heroin. However, with all of the recent emphasis on the nationwide heroin epidemic, the true root of the issue at hand is beginning to be overlooked. Recent studies conducted by the American Society of Addiction Medicine found that 4 out of every 5 heroin users initially began by abusing prescription painkillers. 4 out of every 5. And out of the same 20.5 million Americans that suffered from addiction in 2015, a staggering 2 million had a disorder predominantly linked to prescription painkillers. Clearly, painkillers are driving the opioid epidemic – and in most cases, acting as a gateway drug for a cheaper and more readily accessible alternative. While it is absolutely crucial to keep a spotlight on the vastly detrimental effects of heroin abuse, addiction, and overdose, it is perhaps even more vital to bring to light the true devastation that widespread painkiller abuse has been causing in recent times.
Recent government crackdowns on distribution have lead to a decrease in overprescribing and circulation, but an increase in street value – which, in turn, has lead to a greater demand for heroin. Opioid painkillers are one of the most commonly prescribed medications. This classification of pharmaceutical includes oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine, codeine, and fentanyl – as well as many others. Medications such as these react with opioid receptors within the nerve cells of the brain, and work to relieve pain while simultaneously producing pleasurable effects. From 1994 to 2007, the prescribing rates of opioid painkillers amongst American adolescents nearly doubled. In 2012 alone, nearly 259 million prescriptions were written for painkillers – enough to allot every American adult with his or her own bottle of pills.
How Painkillers Lead to Heroin Abuse
In many instances, opioid painkiller prescriptions will be written for individuals after they sustain a sports-related injury or undergo a minor surgery. It is important to note that although a personal history of addiction does increase the risk of abuse, many cases of opioid dependency have developed simply because painkillers are so highly chemically addictive. Many individuals with no genetic propensity towards addiction and no history of adverse reactions to chemical substances have been prescribed opioid painkillers, taken them as prescribed for a period of time, and eventually developed a physical dependency that ultimately lent itself to heroin abuse.
To further illustrate this point, here is an example:
Mike excelled in high school, both academically and in a host of extracurricular activities – including volleyball. He was given a full-ride scholarship to play volleyball at a university, and did well there for several semesters. He would drink with his friends on the weekend, but never before practice or any big games. He sustained an injury during one game after an ongoing battle with tendinitis, tearing his rotator cuff. He was placed in physical therapy, told to rest, and prescribed hydrocodone to help with the pain. He took the pills as prescribed, but found that they eased the stress he had been feeling surrounding his injury and academics – so he began to take more than were prescribed. Eventually his injury healed, and he was unable to get his hands on more hydrocodone. He finally found a kid at his school that was selling painkillers, but the price he was asking was pretty extreme. It was suggested to Mark by another peer that he try snorting heroin – it provided the same high for a fraction of the cost. After several months of snorting heroin, Mark had built up quite a tolerance. Although he told himself he never would, he began using heroin intravenously.
In many cases, those who abuse painkillers will not be initially prescribed them. Because opioid painkillers are so readily prescribed for short-term, pain-related issues, many individuals will take several pills and leave the rest of the bottle untouched in their medicine cabinet or dresser drawer. Adolescents and young adults tend to help themselves to things, and an unwanted bottle of painkillers is often altogether too tempting to ignore – especially during the young, experimental years. Adolescents and young adults often frequently find forgotten painkillers in their grandparents’ houses, at neighbors’ houses, and receive pills from friends at school, parties, or other social gatherings. In order to protect your children from the dangers of painkiller abuse, properly dispose of all unused and expired medications. Educate yourself more on the dangers of prescription medications, and do your best to clearly convey the message that just because a doctor prescribes something, it does not mean that it is harmless.
Painkiller Addiction Recovery
Recovering from painkiller addiction is entirely possible, though it is a long-term and intensive process. Because the physical dependency that goes hand-in-hand with addiction is so powerful, it is highly recommended that those who have been actively abusing painkillers (and other opioid narcotics) enter into a long-term, residential treatment facility for 90 days or more. Although it is possible for anyone to develop a life-threatening addiction to opioid narcotics, many addicts either have co-occurring disorders or unresolved trauma. In order for long-term recovery to be achieved, it is often essential for individuals who grapple with multiple disorders to enter into a comprehensive program of recovery.