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America's Opioid Abuse Crisis: What You Should Know

By Jennifer Mitchell
America's opioid abuse crisis is a public health emergency. Here we explain how this crisis started and how it may be solved.

Opioids are a type of pain medication used to treat moderate to severe pain. They can control pain, but unfortunately, also have the potential to be extremely addictive when misused. Here’s what you need to know about America's ongoing painkiller and opioid abuse crisis.

Opioid abuse crisis by the numbers

Every day an average of 130 people in the United States die from an opioid overdose, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says. More than 700,000 Americans died of an opioid overdose between 1999 and 2017. In 2018, 10.3 million people misused prescription opioids, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) says. Some people misuse these drugs by taking more than their doctor prescribes. Others take drugs that were prescribed to someone else.

In 2018, 2 million people had an opioid use disorder. People with this disorder may develop a higher tolerance for these painkillers, which means they need more of the drug in order to achieve their desired effect, whether that be pain relief or recreational "high." Disordered users may have a strong urge to use opioids, and may not be able to control their opioid use. Others may use opioids while driving, or keep using the drugs despite physical, mental, legal, or social problems that result.

Origins of the opioid abuse

The opioid abuse crisis began in the late 1990s, according to the National Institutes on Health (NIH) National Institute on Drug Abuse. Doctors started prescribing opioids more often based on claims by pharmaceutical companies that patients wouldn't become addicted. The more they were prescribed, the more widely available they became to those in pain as well as their friends and family. American patients received more than 191 million prescriptions for opioids in 2017, the CDC says.

Opioids are addictive because they make the body produce large amounts of the "feel good" chemicals that regulate your mood, says Dr. Brian Wind Ph.D., an adjunct professor at Vanderbilt University and Clinical Executive at JourneyPure. He says when someone abuses opioids over time, their “brain essentially stops producing dopamine and endorphins on its own.” To feel good, they need to keep taking opioids, but then they “get lost in the vicious cycle of opioid addiction.”

How do we solve the problem?

The opioid abuse crisis isn’t an easy problem to solve. “One of the complicated problems with opioids is that the patients who want to use them [often] have a reason to be in pain,” Dr. Barbara Bergin, a board-certified orthopedic surgeon, tells WebMD Connect to Care.

To solve America’s opioid crisis, the HHS has identified a few different priorities. These include promoting less addictive ways to manage pain and improving access to drug treatment services. On a personal level, the CDC recommends talking to your doctor about ways to manage your pain without opioids. These strategies could include physical therapy or over-the-counter pain medications.

Opioids play an important role in treating pain, but these strong drugs are not the only option for pain management. The United States has made progress toward solving the opioid abuse crisis, but there is still a lot of work to be done.

Treatment & Resources for Opioid Addiction