By Gary McCollum
We hear daily about the “Opioid Crisis” in America. We hear about the staggering number of daily deaths from opioid overdose.
Beginning around 1980, one of the more significant trends in pain pharmacology was the increased use of opioids for chronic non-cancer pain.
People would have a minor surgery, complain of chronic pain or go to the dentist for a tooth removal and be given a large quantity of pain medication. Pharmaceutical companies were aggressively selling these to physicians. In 2007, in United States of America v. The Purdue Frederick Company, Inc., Purdue and its top executives pleaded guilty to charges that it misled doctors and patients about the addictive properties of OxyContin and misbranded the product as “abuse resistant.”
Since 2000, the number of overdose deaths from drugs in the U.S. has risen more than 138%. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention termed this a “deadly epidemic” of painkiller abuse.
The over prescription of painkillers has created a severe issue across the United States. In response the Government has increased regulations on doctors and patients to prevent over prescribing and patients from doctor shopping. The Boom-A-Rang effect is now beginning to show up.
Many primary care physicians, in fear of government regulation, interference in their practices and law suits stopped writing prescriptions. Many of them, overnight. The result of this is many functional (although addicted), successful people from all walks of life no longer had access to the drugs that were needed and in some cases abused.
These patients were left to deal with their addiction and/or pain without any form of relief. Lawyers, Mechanics, Bank Tellers, etc. were now labeled as drug abusers.
Opioid pain medication is very similar to heroin and the withdrawal from this drug can present itself as a cold or flu, it will make the individual feel extreme aches and pain, experience fever and in some severe cases lead to death. To get help, they had to enter a rehabilitation program (admitting they were an addict), tough it out or self-medicate using other substances such as alcohol, marijuana, purchase pain medication off the street, or go to the next extreme, heroin. Opioid pain medications and heroin are both derived from Opium.
These individuals that felt forced, either by their addiction or their actual need of relief from chronic pain, that chose to ‘self-medicate’ are now labeled as criminals, junkies, etc.
But why hadn’t we heard about the opioid crisis until recently? Heroin has for many years been a fringe drug, a drug that wasn’t at the top of the most commonly abused. It had been in decline since approximately the mid 70’s. Now, however, heroin is back. It is back in a major way. By curbing the pain medication abuse, there has been a severe increase in demand for alternatives, thus inadvertently creating a market for heroin and fentanyl.
In 2016 the number of heroin users in the United States jumped from 404,000 in 2002 to 948,000 in 2016, a 135% increase according to the most recent government numbers. This year drug overdose deaths are expected to reach an all-time high of 71,600. By comparison the US military saw 58,220 fatal casualties during the Vietnam war.
Government crackdown is reducing the amount of pain medication overdoses, but the boom-a-rang effect means that heroin and fentanyl overdoses are expected to double.
There are other victims to the government crackdown as medical legislation could make life more difficult for people living with chronic pain, people with severe back pain, fibromyalgia, arthritis, Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, etc. These patients are sometimes forced to feel like they are drug abusers by physicians, their staff, pharmacies and society in general.
To win the war on opiates we need to educate physicians. Big pharmaceutical companies and doctors created the addiction problem. They both need to aid in addressing their patients’ needs by providing an alternative to help them taper off the drugs, such as buprenorphine or methadone. To do so without demeaning them, belittling them or making them feel less of a person.
I’ve had four friends over the past ten years that have broken many hearts due to the opioid issue. Two overdosed, one committed suicide and the other spent a few years in prison losing his career, home, car and most devastatingly his family.
We need to educate society. We need to see a person that has dreams, family, and wants to be a part of society. We need to address the underlying problems which drive a person to abuse drugs and which encourage drugs as a solution to all life’s problems. Effective education and prevention are the answer to the opioid crisis.