Is the Current Opioid Epidemic New Though?
It’s hard to turn on the news now-a-days without hearing shocking stories or statistics about the opioid crisis and how it is affecting the country. However, opioids aren’t new. If you have a headache, you take an aspirin, right? Sprained your ankle badly? The doctor will probably recommend ice and ibuprofen. Running a fever? Tylenol or Advil please. Having surgery? Well then, you’ll need some powerful painkillers for your post-surgery pain. The issue isn’t as much with the opioid itself as much as it is with how doctors began prescribing the more powerful opiates to help their patients with chronic pain.
Opioids have been around for hundreds of years. Strangely enough, this is not the first U.S. crisis that the powerful drugs have been associated with. During the Revolutionary war, an estimated 400,000 soldiers treated their pain with morphine and it is believed that this was the biggest cause for the sharp rise in opioid addiction during the early 1800’s. Similarly, over the past 20-30 years, the opioid epidemic has come roaring back and has devastated lives and communities across the country.
While it is easy to point fingers, and there is plenty of blame to go around, it is important to understand that the opioid epidemic did not begin solely because drug companies got greedy, or because doctors turned into reckless pill prescribers overnight. Just like during the Revolutionary War, it began with empathetic doctors who were just trying to alleviate the suffering of people dealing with chronic, and sometimes terminal, pain. However, what started off with good intentions quickly turned into a wild fire of unintentional abuse and overprescribing by physicians.
Back in the day, the more popular opiates like heroin and morphine had unhygienic stigmas attached to them. People were scared to inject themselves with needles and/or share intravenous drugs with other people for fear of diseases or aesthetic blemishes. During the past 30 years or so though, that’s changed. Some of the most powerful opiates are now produced in pill form and that has led to a decreased stigma behind their use. Drugs like Fentanyl (which is almost as much as 50 times more powerful than pure heroin, and the same drug that killed the artist formerly known as Prince) and Oxycodone have replaced heroin and morphine as the drugs of choice among the users that can afford it. Those who can’t afford it, or whose insurance will no longer cover their pain prescriptions, are relegated to shooting heroin or morphine intravenously to get their fix.
The New York Times recently reported that the number of drug overdose deaths exceeded 59,000 in 2016. The incredible rise in the death toll from 2015 represents the largest annual jump ever recorded in the United States (19%) and is just one of the major consequences of an escalating opioid epidemic that is now the leading cause of death among Americans under 50. If Congress and Senate leadership don’t do something soon, these numbers will continue to rise explosively and the opiate crisis will soon turn into a plague.