Opiates: A National Epidemic
According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, as of 2016, 1.9 million people had a substance abuse disorder involving prescription pain relievers and 586,000 people had a substance use disorder involving heroin.
With such astronomical figures, it is no wonder that drug overdose has become the leading cause of accidental death in the United States, with 47,055 lethal drug overdoses in 2014.
The Biological Impact of Opioid Addiction
Due to the overwhelming number of people who experience chronic pain in this country, prescription opioids can act as a gateway drug for those who have not yet tried the recreational use of prescription pain relievers or street drugs like heroin. For those who are already addicted to expensive prescription pain medications like oxycodone, heroin can become a cheaper alternative, leading to a potentially lethal dose, as frequency of use increases, and cravings persist. The increased availability of heroin for young adults has contributed to its elevation in use, in addition to its generally low cost.
The physiological impact of introducing a steady stream of opioids into the body, leads to enormously high levels of dopamine. “Upon entering the brain, enzymes convert heroin back into morphine. Once in morphine form, it quickly binds to opioid receptors in the brain. This binding action triggers sensations of pain relief and even euphoria – which are more intense than the sensations produced by the body’s own endorphins,” states Heroin.net. By activating the pleasure center of the brain and flooding its system with dopamine, the brain becomes depleted of its own ability to produce the “feel-good” chemical, naturally derived from stimulus like food, sex, or exercise. After an extended period of use, individuals begin to build a tolerance to the drug, resulting in a dependency, followed by increased usage, which can often lead to an overdose.
According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, prescription of opioids among adolescents and young adults nearly doubled from 1994 to 2007. Many women who experience chronic pain are being prescribed these potentially lethal pain medications, leading to an ongoing crisis of overdose in the United States. From 2010 to 2013, heroin overdoses tripled among women, increasing from 0.4% to 1.2% (asam.org). Today, the most commonly overdosed opioids are:
With the availability of prescription pain medications and the increased level of usage required to achieve a determined result, the risk of overdosing has increased to dramatic levels.
Due to its extremely high potential for abuse and dependence, the American judicial system classifies heroin as a Schedule I controlled substance, possession or sale of which would result in serious punitive consequences. Fortunately, many states include diversion programs, which offer rehabilitation instead of incarceration. After a most often mandatory detox from the drug to ensure safety on behalf of the individual, rehabilitation, addiction therapy, counseling, group therapy, and aftercare are all viable choices toward finding a solution to heroin and opioid use.
Consultation with a doctor to prescribe non-habit-forming pain medications is an alternative to becoming addicted to a substance, which may prove lethal to the user. Homeopathic remedies, exercise, and diet are all long-term solutions in lieu of opioid use, which can be seen as a “quick-fix” to or a “band aid” on the problem. Education and maintaining an open dialogue with your family about the effects of heroin and opioid usage are helpful tools in combating this national epidemic.
Investing in your mental, physical, and emotional health is a lifetime commitment that can be renewed each day, one day at a time.