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America’s Problem With Opioids

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The human cost of prescription painkiller addiction and overdose

Like it or not, America has a pretty serious issue with Opioid abuse. So much so that it is costing an average of 115 lives on a daily basis, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). If that doesn’t horrify you on a personal level, then maybe the cost of this abuse will. Between healthcare costs, rehabilitation lost jobs and legal fees, the aforementioned CDC estimates that opioid abuse costs around $78.5 billion per year… that’s $78.5 billion that could otherwise have been used for education or public services.

The Problem Affects Everyone

Opioid abuse can affect anyone. Statistics, according to the CDC, say that up to 29% of the people prescribed these drugs (usually for chronic pain) will end up abusing them in one way or another.

The problem is prominent, and the figures are terrifying. In Arizona alone, according to AZ Family, there were 790 deaths between 2016 and 2017… a 74% rise since 2012. Shockingly, this is not so far away from the national average, which has seen a 30% rise overall in the 2016/17.

What is Chronic Pain?

So if many of these people are prescribed drugs for chronic pain, what exactly is a chronic pain?
A chronic pain condition is where a pain persists beyond the normal healing time of around three months. If pain persists longer than three months, there may be an underlying cause or health issue that needs to be addressed.

Many people who are prescribed opioids are patients with have non-cancer diagnoses, and that these patients tend to have chronic pain conditions such as musculoskeletal and connective tissue disorders, like lower back pain.

The ‘crisis’ consists of a mix of illicit drugs and legal drugs

When you read statistics, such as those quoted in articles like this, about the opioid crisis, you may be lead to think the problem is illicit drugs such as heroin. While heroin abuse and overdose is certainly a problem, the statistics reveal that almost just as much damage is done from prescription painkillers.

Yes, that’s right. Most of the abuse, overdose, and accidental death comes from legally prescribed opioids such as pain medications and other ‘over the counter’ pills.

Here is what we know (from CDC):

  • Sales of prescription opioids in America, between 1999 and 2014, increased almost x4 times.
  • Almost 50% of all opioid overdose deaths in 2016 involved legal opioids – prescription medications.
  • Regarding illicit drugs, in 2015 annual overdose deaths from heroin outstripped deaths from car accidents and guns combined.

According to Australia’s Annual Overdose Report 2016, released by The Penington Institute, it is stated that prescription medications were responsible for 69% of drug-related deaths compared with 31% for illicit drugs. Australia is also in the midst of a serious opioid epidemic, compared to that in the U.S.

The problem is both legal and illegal opioids – the addiction and overdose nightmare remains the same, irrespective of the legality of the supply.

A history of over prescription

This whole problem kicked off in the nineties when big pharmaceutical companies promoted their painkillers as is not addictive. There was an incorrect assumption made that risk of addiction was low.

It worsened from there, with patients suffering from chronic pain believing there was no harm in popping a pill every time they had the faintest hint of a headache.

Worse, they would share their painkillers with other people who were suffering either from a chronic condition of their own – or who just had a pain somewhere that day… Thus, the epidemic was born, and we are still dealing with the aftermath to this day.

A new approach is needed

Nowadays the CDC advises that Doctors limit their prescriptions for opioid medication, and there are other options available. The CDC also recommends that Doctors ask their patients open questions about their pain that cannot be answered with a simple yes or no. This aims to encourage patients to open up and talk about their condition and see if other treatment options may be appropriate, in the first instance.

They further advise that Doctors prescribe alternatives such as topical creams or analgesics. Most of all they advocate the use of exercise therapy as a way to loosen tightened muscles and actively combat the symptoms of conditions such as fibromyalgia. Chiropractic and physiotherapy are also common modalities that commonly help with chronic pain conditions.

There are other methods that can be explored in pain medication, too. For example, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (or CBT) is a psychotherapy aimed at examining the patient’s behaviour and how they manage their condition. It can provide helpful tips and insights into pain management, stress management, and can help people who are suffering symptoms brought out by psychological trauma.

Diet and exercise are the great way to help with managing pain.  Certain foods may help reduce inflammation that often causes pain. Exercise may also help make supporting muscles stronger in areas where pain exist, which eases the pain in the affected areas.

Conclusion

The statistics should alarm you. With the opioid crisis costing up to 115 lives on a daily basis, something has to change, now.

Both legal and illegal drugs are to blame for the addiction and overdose crisis, and the over-prescription of pain medications is in part to blame. For chronic pain conditions, is the prescription of painkillers really going to address any underlying health issues that may be contributing to that pain?

In some cases pain medications are definitely warranted however when they are used as the only form of treatment, knowing that are often highly addictive, they may lead to more serious health problems. The data shows us that record numbers of people are becoming addicted to opioids and the consequence of this is also a record number of overdose and accidental death.

The solutions lie in a new approach to how we think about pain and our health and wellbeing.

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