An opioid overdose killed 16-year-old Flash actor Logan Williams on April 02, 2020. His death is yet another example of how prescription painkillers have become killers and the opioid crisis continues to be a public health challenge. Elvis Presley, Heath Ledger, Joan Laurer Chyna, Tom Petty, and many other well-known personalities lost their lives following the abuse of pharmaceutical-grade opioids.
Addiction and opioid painkiller abuse kill more Americans than heroin addiction. The opioid crisis has claimed over 400,000 deaths in the United States in the last two decades significantly reducing the average national life expectancy. In 2017, the opioid crisis claimed over 47,700 lives, more than two-thirds of all US drug overdose deaths. Another 46,802 died due to it in 2018 accounting for 70% of all deaths linked to prescription drugs that year.
Opioid addiction has also resulted in substance dependence, which continues to cause suffering to millions. According to a 2018 survey, opioid use disorder impacts at least 2.35 million Americans costing the US economy $700 billion a year. This also increases the risk of infectious diseases, mental disorders, and suicide. Those suffering are unable to contribute to the national economy and run a higher chance of ruining their family relations.
What Is the Opioid Crisis?
Opioid crisis refers to the increasing opioid painkiller overuse, misuse, and dependence resulting in major social, economic, and medical consequences. Opioid painkillers are a class of synthetic and semi-synthetic analgesic drugs with characteristics similar to narcotics. Approved as a temporary cosmetic treatment option for moderate to severe pain that is often unresponsive to other less dangerous painkillers. Opioids stimulate the opioid receptors in the brain and other parts of your body and block neurotransmitters that play a role in nervous excitability and pain sensation perception.
However, the very opioids we rely on to relieve chronic pain are likely to make you sick. A report released by the National Institute on Drug Abuse warns that opioid painkillers put users at a 40-times higher risk of heroin abuse. Half of those addicted to narcotics usually have a history of opioid painkiller abuse. Addiction to opioid pain management often results in withdrawal symptoms, organ toxicity, hormonal imbalance, heart failure, and coma. These drugs also have fatal consequences when taken with antidepressants.
The opioid crisis in the United States is due to the unfettered promotion and sale of these highly addictive drugs. Though these have been in use for decades to control unmanageable pain, it was in the late 1990s when the prescription of opioid pain relievers took pace. Doctors began to prescribe them far beyond traditional indications and users started to have them for both acute and chronic pain symptoms.
This led to a dramatic expansion of opioid use although these were not intended for use in cases of ordinary injuries. Recurrent use of opioids resulted in substance dependence and easy access to prescription drugs only compounded the problem. The 2000s saw an unprecedented level of deaths linked to the opioid crisis prompting the government to take action at all levels. The Food and Drug Administration acknowledged the opioid crisis as its biggest challenge in 2017 and this forced the Trump administration to declare it a national emergency.
Drug Abuse and the Opioid Crisis
The onset of the opioid crisis saw massive overuse of oxycontin, oxycodone, and hydrocodone. They have been linked to more overdose deaths than any other medication until the arrival of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, in 2013. Three-fold stronger than heroin, it soon became the most misused opioid. Users turn to the black market to buy this drug and it resulted in many deaths and widespread addiction.
Opioid painkillers are also known to depress breathing capacity, which can cause severe brain damage. Besides, the two most common side effects – mental confusion and extreme drowsiness – place patients at a high risk of accidents and neuroplastic psychological disorders. Reports indicate that these drugs also worsen heart and kidney ailments. Patients developing tolerance to opioids are considerably more likely to experience acute neuropathic and muscular pain.
In 2018, the percentage of deaths linked to opioid use went up by 16%. Fatalities caused by fentanyl and tramadol increased by 79%.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration maintains that about 15 million US residents abuse prescription drugs. Opioid pain medications constitute a major portion of this epidemic. Every 19 minutes someone in the US dies of an overdose of pain medications. Opioids take over your body and mind and often lead to heroin addiction. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has also put a question mark on the prescription of opioid medications for pain management. A report released by the agency highlights that despite a four-fold rise in sales of opioid prescription pain killers between 2004 and 2010, the average amount of pain an American experienced did not change. On the other hand, opioid painkillers’ side effects kill almost 45 people every day.
Cannabis as an Alternative to Opioids
A 2013 FDA guideline on pain management using prescription opioid medications cautioned against using these drugs to relieve back pain, headaches, fibromyalgia, neuropathic pain, and other chronic pain symptoms. They also required labeling changes to carry black box warnings restricting the use of these drugs to patients requiring “daily, around-the-clock, long-term pain management.” Labeling changes also included warnings highlighting the risk of “narcotic withdrawal syndrome” in babies born to mothers treated with these painkillers during pregnancy.
An effective substitute to manage chronic pain can help end the opioid crisis in the United States. Cannabis with its proven pain-relieving properties has the immense promise to become the much-needed alternative. Statistics by American Marijuana show that the introduction of medical cannabis has become helpful in curbing opioid use in many US states. Of the 19 states surveyed, 15 witnessed a sharp decline in opioids prescriptions after the legalization of cannabis.
Lisa Mayes is a freelance health and diet researcher and counselor. She is an advocate of equality, liberty for all, human rights, women empowerment, healing through healthy eating and lifestyle and has been writing on these issues for more than a decade. Lisa also works for women empowerment, tackling mental health issues, and spreading cancer awareness.