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What is an Opioid?

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Opioid addiction has been in the American spotlight recently. We hear about opioids on TV and online all the time. This is because the U.S. is currently experiencing an epidemic of opioid related deaths. Rates of addiction and the number of deaths due to this type of drug are on the rise. The CDC reported that since 1999, the number of these deaths has quadrupled!  What is it about opioids? Why are we having this epidemic now?

First of all: What is an opioid?

An opioid is a chemical substance related to opium that acts on the opioid receptors in our brain; they are narcotic drugs and painkillers. In the past, we just had opium and the compounds derived from it, like heroin and morphine. However, nowadays we have synthetic, super-effective concentrated opiates. These are made in the lab and marketed as prescription painkillers.

Names of the most popular prescription opioids:

  • Codeine
  • Fentanyl a.k.a. Actiq, Duragesic, Fentora
  • Hydrocodone a.k.a. Hysingla ER, Zohydro ER
  • Hydrocodone/Acetaminophen a.k.a. Lorcet, Lortab, Norco, Vicodin
  • Hydromorphone a.ka. Dilaudid, Exalgo
  • Meperidine a.k.a. Demerol
  • Methadone a.k.a. Dolphine, Methadose
  • Morphine a.k.a. Astramorph, Avinza, Kadian, MS Contin, Ora-Morph SR
  • Oxycodone a.k.a. OxyContin, Oxecta, Roxicodone
  • Oxycodone and acetaminophen a.k.a. Percocet, Endocet, Roxicet
  • Oxycodone and naloxone a.k.a. Targiniq ER

Do you recognize any of these prescription medications? Most of these drugs are taken orally as pills or liquid, but Fentanyl can be taken using a dermal patch. Fentanyl has been growing in popularity due to its concentrated dosage. Doctors often prescribe these drugs to patients after injuries or surgeries. Sometimes they are used to manage chronic pain too.

Illicit Opioids include Heroin and Opium. Opium is less common these days. It’s a sticky dark substance which comes from the juice of opium seed pods. Opium is smoked or eaten to obtain the euphoric effects. Heroin comes in many forms, from a white powder to black tar-like material. It is highly addictive and can be injected, snorted, or smoked. The risks associated with heroin use increases when the drug is injected. This is because injecting allows for the possibility of transmitting blood-borne illness between users. “Sharing Needles” can lead to HIV, Hepatitis, and other blood-borne diseases.

Why are Opioids such a big deal right now?

What’s with this Opioid addiction epidemic? According to the CDC 60% of all drug overdoses are related to opioid use and the rates of addiction and opioid related deaths have quadrupled since 1999. To put this in perspective, nowadays we’re seeing about 91 people dying from opioids ever day.

Experts agree that the source of the epidemic stems from the growing use of prescription pain-killers. Doctors today are four times more likely to prescribe an opioid painkiller than they were 20 years ago. Substance abuse experts have identified a common narrative among people addicted to opioids. First, people start out using these medications as prescribed, but over time begin to abuse them. This leads to a chemical dependence, also known as an addiction, to opioids. As people consume these prescription pain-killers and start to lose money, they begin to seek out cheaper illicit opioids such as heroin. At this point, risk for overdose is very high. In short, more prescriptions means more access to prescription opioids, which then means more people have a chance to get hooked.

Pharmaceutical Companies are making a fortune from opioid pain-killers. OxyContin, just one brand name from the list above, alone produces over $2 billion in sales every year. The total market for opioids in North America was estimated at $12.4 billion in the year 2015, and at that time was projected to grow at about 5% per year. Lobbyists, physicians, and politicians have all been involved with protecting and defending this legal drug-dealing industry. What strategies are these companies using to increase their sales? Are they ethical?

Who do we blame for this epidemic? Is it the doctors’ fault? The pharmaceutical companies’? Or our own? It is hard to say, and I don’t think there is one right answer.

One Emergency Room physician MD, who has personally observed the Opioid Epidemic throughout her 20 years of practice, comments:

“I have some mixed thoughts. Part of the problem is societal; we have become a culture of wanting a fix for everything. People have unrealistic expectations of pain management and a poor understanding of the risks of the opioid pain medications. [This is a] culture of belief that there should be no pain. [We need an] understanding of pain management coupled with the expectation that not all pain can be eliminated.

“I agree that there is an access problem. It is too easy to get these medications but also it has become too easy for the media to blame physicians when there is also the responsibility of the individual too”

Have you personally been affected by this epidemic? Are you or your families struggling with prescription or illicit opioids? Please reach out to us at Intervention.com for help. We are experienced with this type of addiction and can connect you with the resources you need to break free from opioids.