The perception of addiction among the general public is often very different from the reality of the condition. Even when accepting it as a disease, many still point to the voluntary nature of substance abuse and the subsequent development of addiction. While many addictions do begin with experimental use, there are some that occur as unintended consequences. One example is the use of prescription painkillers, which starts innocently enough because of an injury, but often ends in a debilitating heroin addiction.
America, The Land of Prescription Painkillers
At some point over the last 20 years, the U.S. became completely obsessed with prescription opioids. Physicians are prescribing them at record rates, and patients are relying on them for relief more than ever before. The combination of rampant chronic pain in America, incessant drug marketing and overloaded healthcare providers has led to a full-blown national opioid epidemic.
U.S. Prescription Opioid Use and Abuse by The Numbers
- The number of opioids prescribed grew from approximately 76-million in 1991 to 207-million in 2013
- Americans make up 4.6 percent of the world’s population but consume 80 percent of its prescription opioids
- In 2012, physicians wrote 260 million prescriptions for painkillers, which was enough for every adult in the nation to have his or her own bottle
- 46 Americans die every day from an overdose on prescription painkillers
- There were 1.9 million Americans addicted to prescription painkillers in 2014
- In 2014, there were 4.3 million nonmedical users of opioid painkillers
- Prescription drug abuse is the leading cause of drug overdoses nationally
While prescribing opioids is the most common strategy used to treat pain, it is not always the most effective. With physicians spending mere minutes with each patient during visits, the simplest and quickest treatment for pain is an opioid prescription. The problem is that painkillers only mask the sensation of pain; they do not eliminate its cause, which means that ongoing use of prescription opioids is often a necessity. Ongoing use leads to dependency and then addiction.
Painkillers are extremely effective at bringing short-term relief for severe injuries, pain associated with cancer and post-surgical pain. However, there is little information known about the benefits of long-term opioid use. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) notes that most clinical studies into the long-term impact of opioid use end at six weeks or less. The organization also notes that with 8 million Americans currently using prescription opioids for the treatment
of chronic pain, the gap of knowledge into its impact and efficacy over extended periods of time is problematic.
- 1. https://www.nih.gov/news-events/news-releases/nih-analysis-shows-americans-are-pain
- 2. https://www.drugabuse.gov/about-nida/legislative-activities/testimony-to-congress/2016/americas-addiction-to-opioids-heroin-prescription-drug-abuse
- 3. http://www.asam.org/docs/default-source/advocacy/opioid-addiction-disease-facts-figures.pdf
- 4. http://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/opioid-prescribing/
- 5. https://www.statista.com/statistics/250219/us-physicians-opinion-about-their-compensation/
- 6. https://directorsblog.nih.gov/2015/01/27/managing-chronic-pain-opioids-are-often-not-the-answer/
The Road from Prescription Painkillers to Heroin Addiction
The spike in opioid prescriptions has led to an increase in heroin abuse, addiction and overdoses. Prescription opioids and illicit heroin are both derived from the poppy plant, giving them similar chemical structures, analgesic properties and potential for abuse and addiction. The chief differences between the two types of drugs are part of what has led to an increase in heroin use, following a crackdown on the prescribing of painkillers:
- Heroin is cheaper
- Heroin does not require a prescription
- Heroin is often more potent
The path from responsible use of prescription painkillers to heroin addiction is one that we are seeing played out all too often across the United States. When a person is injured playing sports, in a car accident or any other way, they are often prescribed powerful opioids for the pain. As a patient continues to take a prescription opioid, he or she may develop a tolerance that will require more pills to produce the same effects.
When a prescribing physician refuses to increase the dosage or write another prescription, many patients are forced to find other alternatives. For individuals who either still need pain relief, have become dependent on prescription opioids or have begun to use them for non-medical purposes, the loss of access to the prescription can be quite devastating, leading to a host of painful withdrawal symptoms. Faced with the choice of fighting withdrawal symptoms or finding an alternative, many choose heroin as a substitute. Heroin use not only relieves pain, but it also satisfies the opioid addiction.
How Prescription Opioids Are Linked to Heroin  
- People who are addicted to prescription opioids are 40 times more likely to become addicted to heroin
- The rise in opioid prescriptions during the 21st century mirrors the 286 percent increase in heroin-related overdose deaths during the same period
- Of those who began abusing opioids in the 2000s, 75 percent reported that their first opioid was a prescription drug
- 1. http://www.cdc.gov/vitalsigns/heroin/
- 2. https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/relationship-between-prescription-drug-heroin-abuse/prescription-opioid-use-risk-factor-heroin-use
Exploring Drug-Free Pain Treatments
Pain relief is not exclusively available in a bottle. Long before the advent of modern medicine, civilizations relied on a number of different pain relieving methods that are still in use today. The problem for most of these drug-free options is that they don’t work as quickly as opioids – something that does not always sit well with our microwave-oriented society. We want results as quickly as possible, and drug-free options don’t provide instant relief.
What they can provide, however, is long-lasting relief. Researchers from the NIH examined the efficacy and safety of alternative treatments, reviewing 105 randomized controlled trials from January 1966-to-March 2016. Based on a “preponderance” of positive outcomes versus negative ones, researchers determined that yoga, acupuncture, tai chi and massage therapy could be effective in treating specific types of pain. Researchers admitted that there were gaps in data and that more research needs to be conducted to determine the efficacy on a broader population.
- 1. http://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2579926
People who take prescription opioids according to doctors’ orders can still develop a destructive addiction to heroin as a result. Unfortunately, by the time it gets to that point, the addicted individual needs help overcoming dependency in addition to education about drug-free pain relief. If you’re stuck in a never-ending cycle of pain and drug abuse, it’s time to ask for help. The addiction care professionals at Unity Behavioral Health are experts in pain management, compassionate
detoxification, retraining of life-skills and all of the other rehab services a person in recovery requires. Stop letting addiction control you, and get the help you need to turn your life around by calling us right away at 561-708-5295.