February 20, 2024

Understanding The Opioid Epidemic

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The opioid epidemic in the United States is a major and critical public health issue. Its impact is seen not only in the number of overdose deaths but also in an overall decline in physical and mental health, especially among middle-aged white people. There’s also been an increase in deaths from various causes linked to this crisis.

Between 1999 and 2021, roughly 645,000 people lost their lives due to overdoses related to opioids, according to CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).

Read on to learn more about the following issues:

  • When did the opioid epidemic begin?
  • What started the opioid epidemic?
  • Is the opioid epidemic over?

You can also discover how to connect with evidence-based opioid addiction treatment near you. Although opioid use disorder is a disruptive and chronic condition, it’s also highly treatable.

What Is an Opioid Epidemic?

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The opioid epidemic refers to the sharp increase in the use of opioid drugs that triggered a dramatic rise in addiction and overdose deaths in the United States. It’s a public health crisis that has been escalating over the past few decades, impacting people across all demographics and geographic regions.

The opioid crisis involves both prescription opioids like hydrocodone, oxycodone, and morphine, and illicit opioids like heroin and fentanyl. The crisis began largely due to the over-prescription of opioid painkillers, which led to increased dependence and addiction among those prescribed these medications. Over time, the issue has compounded, with many people turning to cheaper and more accessible illicit opioids after becoming addicted to prescription painkillers.

The opioid epidemic is not just about the misuse of drugs, though. Broader health and social issues arise from this misuse, including a rise in infectious diseases, disruption to families and communities, and increased healthcare costs. Addressing the opioid epidemic requires comprehensive strategies that include prevention, harm reduction, effective treatment, and policy changes.

What Caused the Opioid Epidemic?

The opioid epidemic has unfolded to date over four distinct phases:

  1. Prescription opioid painkillers
  2. Heroin
  3. Fentanyl and other synthetic opioids
  4. Fentanyl and stimulants

The opioid epidemic has its roots in a combination of factors, with a significant contribution from the pharmaceutical industry’s practices in the late 1990s. One of the primary causes was the aggressive and misleading marketing strategies employed by pharmaceutical companies, especially concerning the promotion of opioids like OxyContin (oxycodone) as pain relievers. This medication was to earn the name hillbilly heroin for its central role in the first wave of the opioid epidemic.

During the persuasive campaign waged by big pharma in the 1990s, these companies claimed that opioids posed a low risk of addiction. This claim, which was later proven to be misleading, led to a substantial increase in the prescription of opioids for various types of pain, both acute and chronic.

As prescriptions surged, so did misuse and dependence, as it became clear that opioids were, in fact, highly addictive. This initial wave of prescription opioid abuse set the foundation for the wider epidemic, which eventually expanded to include illicit opioids like heroin and synthetic variants such as fentanyl and carfentanil, responsible for many recent opioid epidemic deaths.

The debate concerning how did the opioid epidemic start closed when Purdue Pharma admitted their role and paid billions in damages.

image of man representing opioid epidemic timeline

Statistics on The Opioid Epidemic

The following snapshot of opioid statistics is taken from sources including NSDUH (National Survey on Drug Use and Health) and National Center for Health Statistics.

  • 70,000 people died from drug overdoses in the United States in 2019, and more than 100,000 died in 2022, marking a disturbing all-time high.
  • Over 10 million people misused prescription opioids in that same year.
  • 1.6 million people were diagnosed with opioid use disorder in 2019.
  • 50,000 people used heroin for the first time, sometimes due to an inability to refill opioid prescriptions.
  • 1.6 million people misused prescription painkillers for the first time.
  • In the year ending June 2020, almost 15,000 people overdosed on heroin in the U.S., while 48,000 died from overdosing on synthetic opioids aside from methadone.
  • 21% to 29% of those prescribed opioids to treat chronic pain will misuse the medication.
  • Up to 12% of those prescribed opioids from chronic pain develop opioid use disorder.
  • Between 4% and 6% of those misusing prescription opioids start using heroin.
  • Of all those people who use heroin, 80% first misused prescription opioids.

Opioid Epidemic Timeline

The opioid epidemic has evolved over more than a decade, marked by the following phases:

  1. Early stages (1999-2010): The epidemic initially began with increased prescribing of opioids for pain management, leading to widespread misuse of these medications. This phase saw a sharp rise in addiction and overdose deaths related to prescription opioids.
  2. Second wave (2010-2013): As measures to control prescription opioid abuse were implemented, there was a shift toward heroin use, leading to a surge in heroin-related overdose deaths.
  3. Third wave (2013 onwards): The epidemic took a more dangerous turn with the rise of synthetic opioids, particularly fentanyl, which is many magnitudes more potent than heroin and prescription opioids. Fentanyl-related overdoses increased dramatically, causing a spike in overall opioid-related deaths.
  4. Fourth wave (recent years): The most recent phase of the epidemic involves a combination of fentanyl and stimulants like methamphetamine and cocaine. This combination has led to an even more complex and challenging public health crisis, with an increase in fatalities due to the potent effects of these combined substances.

What Can Be Done About Opioid Addiction?

Addressing opioid addiction requires a multifaceted approach, involving both individual and community-level interventions:

  • Education and prevention: Raising awareness about the risks of opioid use and educating healthcare providers and the public about safe prescribing practices.
  • Access to treatment: Expanding access to effective treatment options, including MAT (medication-assisted treatment) which combines medications like methadone, buprenorphine, or naltrexone with counseling and behavioral therapies.
  • Support for recovery: Providing long-term support services for individuals in recovery, including peer support groups, employment assistance, and housing.
  • Policy changes: Implementing policy measures to regulate the prescribing of opioids, improve prescription drug monitoring programs, and ensure that pain management is treated safely and effectively.
  • Harm reduction: Adopting harm reduction strategies such as making naloxone, an opioid overdose reversal drug, widely available and supporting safe consumption spaces.
  • Mental health services: Integrating mental health services with substance abuse treatment to address co-occurring disorders.
  • Research and innovation: Investing in research to develop new treatment modalities and understanding the complex nature of addiction.
  • Community engagement: Involving communities in developing local solutions and support networks for prevention and treatment.

By combining these strategies, it’s possible to reduce the incidence of opioid addiction and support those affected towards recovery and better health outcomes with the opioid epidemic still unresolved. Here’s how you can get help right away if you or a loved one is abusing any type of opioids.

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Call Addiction Hotline Today for Help Overcoming Opioid Addiction

While opioid addiction can be highly disruptive, it’s also treatable. Regrettably, many U.S. adults battling opioid use disorder don’t know how to connect with the care they need. We can help with this at Addiction Hotline.

Effective opioid addiction treatment usually begins with supervised detoxification. When you call Addiction Hotline, staff can put you in touch with detox centers near you, enabling you to get your recovery started the right way.

Most opioid addictions also require ongoing treatment to address the psychological component. We can connect you with inpatient and outpatient rehabs throughout California, as well as peer support groups and additional resources.

Start tackling opioid addiction today by calling 855-701-0479.

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