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Opiate Addiction is an Epidemic

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Clinically Reviewed by:
Lindsey Rae Ackerman, LMFT

Written by:
Alex Salman, MPH on February 28, 2024

I was in my first year of Graduate School at the University of Washington when I injured myself in a movement class. I herniated a disc in my lower back and was in extreme pain. L5. I had five years of sobriety under my belt, attended AA meetings, had worked the 12-steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and thought I had a strong and lasting foundation of sobriety. So when I was offered painkillers and muscle relaxants for my back, I thought I would be fine.

I was prescribed Vicodin for the pain and Valium for the inflammation. I neglected to tell the Doctor that I was a recovering addict and alcoholic, my first mistake. I picked up my prescriptions at the school pharmacy and took the first dose. Immediately I felt different. The pills triggered that odd mental switch and the physical craving that are unique to drug addicts and alcoholics. Once the pills were in my system, the foundation of sobriety I had built disintegrated. I was an addict experiencing pain relief and wanting more.

Painkillers were never my drug of choice, I had struggled in the past with alcohol and other forms of drugs, but never painkillers. They made me nauseous, itchy and tired. But before long I was abusing the Vicodin and Valium. I started to hide my pills around the house so my fiancé wouldn’t know how much I was taking. I took more than prescribed. Then I began to buy Adderall from friends so I could get high on my pain medication and stay awake for school. I started to manipulate and lie to doctors so I could get prescribed more and more. I was taking up to 12 Vicodin and 12 Valium a day to function. It was only a matter of time before I started drinking again. Just like that five years of sobriety went down the tubes.

Opiate Addiction is an Epidemic in the United States

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than 115 people in the United States die after overdosing on opioids a day. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the total “economic burden” of prescription opioid misuse alone in the United States is $78.5 billion a year, including the costs of healthcare, lost productivity, addiction treatment and criminal justice involvement.

Opioids are a type of narcotic pain medication. They can have serious side effects if not taken correctly. Opioids work by binding to opioid receptors in the brain, spinal cord and other areas of the body. They reduce the sending of pain messages to the brain and reduce feelings of pain.

Some types of opioid drugs include:

  • Codeine
  • Fentanyl
  • Hydrocodone
  • Hydromorphone (Dilaudid)
  • Meperidine (Demerol)
  • Methadone
  • Morphine
  • Oxycodone
  • Oxycontin

In the late 1990’s, pharmaceutical companies reassured the medical community that patients would not become addicted to prescription opioid pain relievers, and healthcare providers began to prescribe them at higher rates. We know these medications are highly addictive and lead to more significant drug abuse. About 80 percent of people who used heroin first misused prescription opioids. An estimated 4-6 percent of people who misuse prescription opioids transition to heroin.

Painkillers have High Risk for Physical Dependence

Physical dependence occurs when a person uses the drug substantially for a period of one week to ten days. Psychological dependence results after the drugs are abused for a longer time. Signs of psychological abuse can be determined if a patient shows an incapacity to control their craving for the drug and an unrelenting usage despite the obvious negative consequences on their work, personal, financial, social or health aspects of their lives.

It is not suggested to detox from opiates on your own. One opiate abuser stated that he would never forget being a grown man and lying on the floor of a rehab crying for someone to put him out of his misery because his withdrawal was so painful and severe from opiates. The detoxification process from opiates usually begins with tapering off. It is best to do this in a nurse assisted facility because opioid withdrawal can be very uncomfortable and unpleasant. It is not until someone can detox from the substances they are physically addicted to before they can begin significant treatment and abstain from future drug abuse.

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