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Opioid addiction: When the “cure” becomes the problem
By Lisa Jones
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Opioid addiction: When the “cure” becomes the problem

Everyone is talking about it – members of Congress, law enforcement, mental health professionals, parents, teachers, the media, medical professionals and drug addicts. Opioid addiction.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, an estimated 2.1 million people in the United States were addicted to prescription opioid pain relievers in 2012, and the numbers have been steadily growing. Add to that an estimated 467,000 more people addicted to heroin and we have a major public health epidemic on our hands. The numbers are staggering and the implications on society are widespread and challenging.

Prescription pain pills hold an important and legitimate place in the health care arena and are very effective at controlling pain in very sick or injured patients. They work by attaching to specific molecules in the body, called opioid receptors. These receptors can be found on nerve cells in the brain, spinal cord, intestines and other organs throughout the body. When opioids attach to these receptors, they can decrease the amount of pain a person is feeling.

Opioids can also cause a person to feel relaxed and happy – and those euphoric feelings can lead some people to misuse the drugs either knowingly or without realizing they are developing a dependence. Those who abuse pain pills knowingly will often switch to heroin at some point because it’s cheaper than opioids, easier to get and has similar effects. In fact, according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, “four in five new heroin users started out misusing prescription painkillers.”

Whether the addiction is to pain pills or to heroin, the results are quite often the same and can be very dangerous, whether the user continues to use the substance or makes the decision to stop. When breaking free of opioid addiction, the symptoms of withdrawal are quite uncomfortable, including: severe restlessness, muscle and bone pain, diarrhea, vomiting, heightened anxiety, trouble sleeping, cold flashes with goosebumps and uncontrollable leg movements. Relapse after initial withdrawal is quite common and easily leads to overdose when the addict returns to use.

While successfully stopping opioid use is difficult and uncomfortable, continued use of these substances is often deadly, with cases of accidental overdose skyrocketing as usage across the nation has grown.

According to the United States Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, “several factors are likely to have contributed to the severity of the current prescription drug abuse problem. They include drastic increases in the number of prescriptions written and dispensed, greater social acceptability for using medications for different purposes, and aggressive marketing by pharmaceutical companies. These factors together have helped create the broad ‘environmental availability’ of prescription medications in general and opioid analgesics in particular.”

Solutions to this problem are complex and multi-faceted, but awareness is a great first step. In addition to the work underway in the federal and state government arenas, it’s important to remember that opioid addiction – for that matter, ANY addiction – is, most simply, an individual and family issue. As such, drug addiction treatment is an important first line of defense for families experiencing these issues.

(Sources: The National Institute on Drug Abuse; United States Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control; American Society of Addiction Medicine.)

Surprising stats on prescription opioid overdose

  • Overdose deaths involving prescription opioids have quadrupled since 1999. From 1999 to 2014, more than 165,000 people have died in the U.S. from overdoses related to prescription opioids
  • The most common drugs involved in prescription opioid overdose deaths include:
    • Methadone
    • Oxycodone (such as OxyContin®)
    • Hydrocodone (such as Vicodin®)
  • Among those who died from prescription opioid overdose between 1999 and 2014:
    • Overdose rates were highest among people aged 25 to 54 years.
    • Overdose rates were higher among non-Hispanic whites and American Indian or Alaskan Natives, compared to non-Hispanic blacks and Hispanics.
    • Men were more likely to die from overdose, but the mortality gap between men and women is closing.
  • As many as one in four people who receive prescription opioids long term for non-cancer pain struggles with addiction.
  • Every day, more than 1,000 people are treated in emergency departments for misusing prescription opioids.

(Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

Learn more.

If you or someone you know struggles with an addiction to opioids or other substances, call the Mercy Behavioral Health Help Center at (515) 271-6111 any time, any day. Help is available.


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