You’re one of the good guys. Never in your wildest dreams have you imagined being addicted to opioids or any drug for that matter. You have a comfortable home, a well-paying job, a loving family and a great social circle. You’re also physically active and you try to eat healthy as much as possible. You’re living the good life… so how come you got addicted to opioids?
The alarming thing about opioid addiction is that it can happen to anyone. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported that 72,000 people in the US died from drug overdose in 2017, with two-thirds of that number linked to opioid use.
How does opioid addiction start?
Let’s get back to your story. Since you love to engage in sports and adventure, maybe you decided one weekend to go on a hike or a cycling trip. While you were trying to get that amazing #NeverStopExploring Instagram photo, you unfortunately fell off and broke your leg in the process. This painful experience brought you to the ER, and to manage the pain, your doctor prescribed opioids also known as “painkillers”.
The problem is, the more you use opioids, the higher your tolerance becomes, which means you need a higher dose to get the same numbing effect. Without these drugs, you are likely to experience painful withdrawal symptoms so you just keep on using. To put it simply, this continuous pursuit is what leads to addiction.
This is how most opioid addiction stories start – with many addicts unconsciously becoming overly dependent on pain relieving drugs. Suddenly, sports athletes, new moms who have undergone Cesarean delivery, and people who went through minor surgeries find themselves addicted to opioids.
The accidental addict
It is important to highlight the word “accidental” because while there are people who knowingly seek out opioids to get a high, there are also many who were not aware that taking these painkillers can develop into an addiction. Until now, a lot of first-time users assume that these drugs are safe, after all they were prescribed by their doctors.
How did opioids become so widely available?
Many people attribute the start of this problem to the aggressive drug marketing which began in the late 1990’s. This was when big pharmaceutical companies released awareness campaigns about the importance of chronic pain treatment and assured the public that the chances of getting addicted from painkillers is very low, especially if there is no history of addiction. Testimonials from doctors and patients somehow established the idea that long-term use of painkillers is safe and not addictive.
As a result of this pronouncement, medical practitioners started prescribing painkillers increasingly. For OxyContin alone, a top selling opioid painkiller, written prescriptions for non-cancer patients increased from 670,000 in 1997 to 6.2 million in 2002! While there were doctors who argued that these were valid prescriptions, it is undeniable that this rate was parallel with the spike in prescription drug abuse.
Over prescription and subsequent opioid regulation
Studies have shown that doctors were indeed routinely prescribing excessive opioid drugs for all types of surgical procedures and ER visits for painful conditions. Excess means leftover pills which can then be available for diverted use such as patients taking these pills continuously after the recommended duration or even when their pain is already tolerable.
With opioid addiction rising to disturbing levels, the government started introducing regulations to avoid over prescription. And in 2007, Purdue – the maker of OxyContin, eventually acknowledged that their promotions exaggerated the drug’s safety for long-term use. The company had to pay more than $600 million dollars as a result of misleading the public.
The thing is, that admission of guilt can no longer bring back the deaths caused by opioid overdose. Plus, those who were already addicted to the drug had to resort to the black market to get opioids illegally or move to a cheaper alternative – the street drug heroin.
What is more alarming is that even after that admission by Purdue in 2007, doctors still continue to write a huge number of painkiller prescriptions. In 2012, 259 million painkiller prescriptions were written in America.
A widespread ignorance about opioids
If you are a person who was not exposed to a drug environment or had no prior relationship with a drug user, it’s understandable to be unaware that the painkiller that your doctor just prescribed you for that broken leg – is the same opioid you hear in the news all the time. Chances are, you’ll just take them as prescribed and if you still feel pain, you may think taking extra is totally harmless.
But what happens when your prescription runs out? You find yourself stretching the truth about your levels of pain with your doctor, and eventually they refuse your next medication refill. Unfortunately, by this time you’ve developed a physical dependence on opioids and unless you get access to more medication, you are about to experience the most painful and torturous detox and withdrawal period you could possibly imagine. At this point, many turn to doctor shopping or resort to street drugs – simply to avoid the pain of withdrawal.
This makes it much harder because in order to control this crisis, it would take a massive amount of effort from various sectors including the government, the medical community and the public to raise awareness about what these drugs can do.
In 2017, a survey revealed that the awareness on opioid addiction in the US rose to 43% which is significantly higher than the 33% rate in 2016. While this is remarkable development, that still means that more than half of Americans are not aware that this is an ongoing threat.
Why do good people deny addiction?
It is not uncommon for people with no history of drug-use to be in denial about their addiction. It can be hard for a revered local athlete or a fitness-loving entrepreneur to suddenly admit that they are opioid addicts, especially now with how harsh the social media backlash can be.
The social pressure can make addicts come up with excuses about their addiction and the refusal to admit that they need help can lead to broken relationships, ruined careers, self-harm and even death.
How do I seek treatment for opioid addiction?
If you find yourself becoming more dependent on your painkillers and you are having a hard time quitting, the first step is to acknowledge your condition. Without this, it will be hard for you to get the proper assistance you require to get clean.
It’s important to speak to a professional about your condition who can recommend ways on how you can safely recover. There are available evidence-based treatments and medically assisted detox programs that can help you on a holistic level. You deserve a full, enjoyable life free from substance abuse and all you need to do is to reach out to get there.