America’s current problem with opioids represents the worst drug epidemic in our country’s history. According to statistics published by the Department of Health and Human Services, more than 10 million people misused prescription drugs in 2018, while 2 million suffered full-blown addiction. All told, nearly 48,000 people died of an opioid overdose that year—a rate of roughly 130 per day.
How did we get here? What are opioids, and how does someone become addicted? We intend to address these general questions as we investigate the opioid crisis below.
What Are Opioids?
Opioids are a group of drugs commonly prescribed for pain. They can be given to a patient following surgery, a fall or accident, or for other conditions such as the pain associated with disease and other chronic conditions. The name opioid comes from opium, a powerful narcotic made from the poppy plant, which served as a painkiller in the 18th century.
The group of drugs we know as opioids include:
- Hydrocodone, known by the brand name Vicodin
- Oxycodone, known by the brand names Oxycontin and Percoset
- Hydromorphone, known by the brand name Dilaudid
Heroin, although not a prescription medicine, is also considered an opioid given the similar way it affects the way a body experiences pain. Heroin is the backup, cheaper drug used by opioid abusers who can’t find a supply of prescription medication. All of these drug addictions benefit from treatment programs at an opioid detox center.
How Do Opioids Work?
When a person experiences pain, messages travel along a complex neurological highway that begins in the brain. These messages travel down the spinal cord before fanning out to other regions, triggering various reactions in different parts of the body. In response to the pain, the body produces natural opioids such as endorphins and enkephalins. These bind to receptors in the spinal cord and elsewhere, and subdue pain signals sent to the brain.
Prescription painkillers mimic the body’s natural reaction, sending out proteins that bind to the same opioid receptors and curbing the amount of pain a person feels.
The body’s natural opioids are hard-wired into our survival instinct. When treated with synthetic painkillers, it’s easy for the brain to begin to believe it requires this new substance to stay alive. As the body gets used to the prescribed dose, the brain signals for more, leading to increased dosage and, very likely, an opioid addiction. This can happen in as little as three days.
How Did The Opioid Crisis Start?
In the late 90s, pharmaceutical companies began manufacturing and distributing larger quantities of prescription painkillers. These companies assured the medical community that their new drugs carried little to no risk of addiction and were, in fact, perfectly safe to offer to the public. And so doctors began to prescribe opioids in record numbers.
For example, Perdu Pharma introduced OxyContin to the market. A brand name for oxycodone, available in the United States since 1939, Oxycontin sales ballooned from $48 million in 1996 to $1.1 billion in 2000. But its increased popularity soon bore out its addictive nature, and by 2004 it was a leading cause of drug abuse and opioid addiction treatment.
As mentioned earlier, opioids are frequently a gateway drug to a heroin crisis. When an individual addicted to opioid medication can’t get another prescription of their drug of choice filled, unregulated but readily-available heroin is always on the street. It’s estimated that 80 percent of heroin users started their heroin addiction with prescription opioids.
Breaking the Cycle of Abuse
Are you or someone you care about struggling with their own opioid crisis or heroin crisis? You’re not alone. There are more treatment facilities and options today than ever before, including LA Detox here in Los Angeles, CA. From initial detox to post-treatment continuing care, LA Detox can build a recovery plan specifically for you. A lifetime of sobriety can begin with one phone call. To learn more, call LA Detox at 866.932.8563.