The Connection Between Heroin Abuse And Opioids
The United States is currently facing the worst drug crisis in American history. Over the past decade, drug overdoses have overtaken motor vehicle crashes as the leading cause of accidental deaths in the country. In 2014 alone, 47,055 U.S. citizens died of a drug overdose. While many illicit and addictive drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine can be fatal in certain circumstances, opioids pose the greatest risk for overdose and fatalities.
It’s important to recognize the strong link between heroin addiction and prescription opioid abuse. As the number of prescription opioids sold in the country has increased, so too has the number of reported opioid and heroin overdose deaths. Understanding the connection between these two highly addictive drugs will assist medical patients in making informed decisions about how to treat physical pain without exposing themselves to a high risk for dependency.
Reasons For The Opioid Crisis
Lawmakers and advocacy groups agree that the best strategies to combat the growing number of opioid-related deaths across the country are awareness, education and treatment. Unfortunately, many patients consume prescription opioids without knowing the inherent risks of addiction and overdose. Magnifying the problem, opioid sales over the past decade have nearly quadrupled as the result of aggressive marketing from pharmaceutical companies.
The number of prescriptions written in the U.S. has nearly tripled, from 76 million in 1991 to 219 million in 2011. Since opioids are so accessible and effective, it’s not surprising that doctors would naturally turn to these drugs for alleviating their patients’ pain.
Limited Public Awareness of the Risks of Prescription Drugs
Information about the dangers associated with opioids is not as widely accessible as the medications themselves. The pharmaceutical companies that produce these drugs and the doctors who prescribe them make efforts to warn patients of the inherent risks of addiction and physical dependency. However, many U.S. citizens continue to become dependent or overdose on these medications, indicating that more can be done to enhance patient education when it comes to opioids.
Physicians have a duty to obtain informed consent from their patients before pursuing a treatment plan. Essentially, this means a doctor cannot pursue any medical solution prior to receiving the patient’s fully-informed consent to the treatment.
Doctors take this responsibility very seriously and make a point to thoroughly explain all of the risks inherent to any procedure or treatment technique, including medications. In some cases, breakdowns in communication between doctors and patients can create confusion and spread misinformation. With regard to opioid medications, these miscommunications often revolve around dependency risks and physical tolerance.
Worrisome Prescription Numbers
According to research from the CDC, there were 12 states in 2012 that dispensed more opioid prescriptions than there were people living in these states. The following figures represent the number of prescriptions written per 100 people:
- Alabama – 142.9
- Tennessee – 142.8
- West Virginia – 137.6
- Kentucky – 128.4
- Oklahoma – 127.8
- Mississippi – 120.3
- Louisiana – 118
- Arkansas – 115.8
- Indiana – 109.1
- Michigan – 107
- South Carolina – 101.8
- Ohio – 100.1
This CDC study also seemed to indicate that there is no overarching consensus among doctors for appropriate opioid prescribing practices. Likewise, there were no geographic patterns in this study that indicated any location-based risk factors. These inconsistencies could represent the miscommunications between physicians and patients that sometimes result in patients receiving inconsistent opioid prescriptions.
How Prescription Opioids Lead To Heroin
With limited awareness regarding the dangers of prescription opioids, many patients who have legitimate medical reasons for taking these drugs can still build up a tolerance and become addicted. Additionally, when prescription opioid pills are no longer accessible or do not provide the desired effect, users can are likely to turn to heroin to curb their withdrawal symptoms.
Powerful Addictive Patterns
It’s important to recognize that opioid addiction is driven by a patient’s growing physical dependence. Users will continue to increase their doses in an effort to reach the same level of pain relief. However, this becomes impossible once their bodies begin to develop a tolerance for opioids. This factor may contribute to overdose deaths because patients attempt to increase their dosage without consulting their doctor.
Patients in the midst of addiction employ numerous methods to obtain prescription opioids. The most often-cited source is from a friend or family member who has a prescription. Theft is very common in these situations as well. When no one close to the user has pills available, he or she may attempt to get their prescription refilled through his or her doctor. If this is strategy is not successful, users may turn to a process known as “doctor shopping.”
Doctor shopping describes the practice of patients visiting multiple doctors in rapid succession in an effort to get a prescription from each doctor. Users are able to fill multiple prescriptions and collect a sizeable stockpile in this way without raising suspicions. Some drug dealers will use the same approach to acquire pills that can later be sold illegally. However, this practice is less common today as a result of rising prescription opioids prices, prescription drug monitoring programs, and the widespread availability of heroin.
The Dangers of Heroin
Heroin has been a major public health issue for decades, so the dangers of heroin use are generally well-known to the American public. This naturally leads to the question: “Why is heroin addiction on the rise when everyone knows how dangerous the drug really is?” Based on overdose statistics nationwide, it seems that there is a possible link between prescription opioids use and heroin addiction.
Some individuals rely on a heavy dose of prescription opioid painkillers after suffering traumatic wounds, undergoing extreme surgeries or while managing chronic pain. If healthcare costs or other extenuating circumstances prevent these individuals from obtaining refills of their prescriptions on a consistent basis, the risks of heroin abuse seem inconsequential compared to the intense pain they may experience without the help of their opioid prescription. Patients commonly turn to heroin in order to lessen their withdrawal symptoms as well.
Opioids have some of the most intense withdrawal symptoms of any illicit drug. Most users report nausea, vomiting, dehydration, depression and mood swings when the last does of heroin leaves their systems. In order to curb these extremely uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms, many patients turn to heroin to obtain another dose of opioids.
Seeking Opioid Addiction Treatment
Due to the intense nature of opioid withdrawal, it’s vital for individuals who wish to overcome their addictions to seek proper treatment. There are several unfortunate social stigmas surrounding opioid addiction which deter many users from seeking the help they need out of fear of ostracism and judgment. Studies also indicate that behavioral health is closely linked to patterns of addiction. As a result, individuals suffering from mental health issues experience greater difficulties diagnosing and treating opioid addiction.
Medically Assisted Opioid Detox Is Critical
The first step in overcoming opioid addiction is for the user to detoxify his or her system. This experience can be excruciating due to the intense effects of opioid withdrawal on the human body. Users who attempt to self-detox without proper care and medical supervision risk serious health problems, or even death.
Stopping The Opioid Epidemic
Awareness and education are essential to preventing more opioid overdose deaths. Lawmakers and advocacy groups have pushed for more robust opioid prescribing guidelines and training for doctors who prescribe opioids. Additionally, some states have deployed prescription drug monitoring systems to prevent practices such as doctor shopping, and to catch prescription errors that lead to incorrect dosages.
Many states have also pushed legislation to make Naloxone more easily available for individuals struggling with opioid abuse. Naloxone is capable of quickly reversing the effects of an opioid overdose. Previously, Naloxone was only widely available from hospitals and law enforcement offices, which deterred users from seeking help for fear of facing criminal drug charges. The life-saving nature of Naloxone and the continuing opioid overdose epidemic have encouraged lawmakers to make it more accessible.