The Opioid Crisis: How Pills Meant to Alleviate Pain Became an American Epidemic

Although pain relievers are prescribed to alleviate pain, some individuals find them to be the source of all their troubles—even the source of their death. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), 116 Americans die from opioid-related drug overdoses each day. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently reported that opioid overdose deaths have increased over 30% in the last year, and in October 2017, the opioid crisis was declared a Public Health Emergency by the HHS Acting Secretary.



Morphine and codeine are two opioids that are often used to relieve severe pain post-surgery. Other opioids include Heroin (an illegal drug synthesized from morphine), fentanyl (a fully synthetic opioid), hydrocodone and oxycodone (semi-synthetic opioids). All opioids, natural or synthetic, can be highly addictive. Some doctors have ethical questions concerning common prescription opioids such as Percocet, OxyContin and Vicodin, but many believe these pain relievers can be beneficial when a patient’s prescription is regulated.

 Despite doctors’ regulations and good intentions, the U.S., which consumes 80% of the world’s opioids, has declared the opioid crisis a Public Health Emergency. A portion of the growing number of opioid overdoses in the U.S. are caused by illegal drugs like heroin and fentanyl, but the CDC also reported that prescription drugs were responsible for 40% of the overdoses in 2016, with more than 46 people dying each day from overdoses involving prescription opioids.



 The increasing percentage of prescription opioid-related deaths may be because there’s a large amount of unregulated use of these pain relievers occurring in America today. According to the most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 11.5 million Americans over the age of 12 misused prescription pain relievers in the last year. The survey also found that out of the 11.5 million, 37.5% obtained them through prescriptions their individual doctor and 40% acquired pain relievers from a friend or family member, by buying, stealing or simply accepting them for free.

 Whether an individual obtains their pain killers from a friend or family member or has their pills prescribed by a doctor, the ease of procuring these prescription opioids paired with the pills’ addictive tendencies has opened the door for unassuming addicts and a rising number of prescription opioid overdoses. The National Institute on Drug Abuse associates this increased availability with an increased amount of prescription opioid misuse, and has reported that opioid-related deaths nearly tripled in parallel with U.S. pharmacies tripling opioid prescriptions from 1991 to 2001.

Seventeen years later, these pills are still being misused and causing deaths across the nation. Pain relievers’ easy accessibility is one factor that bolsters the opioid crisis, but another factor is that these pills are prescribed generously for post-surgery pain. According to a recent study from John Hopkins Medical Medicine, a substantial majority of these patients use some to none of their pills and more than 90% fail to dispose of the leftovers, leaving their prescription opioids available for misuse by others.

 Those prescribed a generous number of opioids for pain relief are also vulnerable to becoming addicts themselves. When taken in high doses, these prescription opioids produce pleasurable side effects that (if experienced frequently) can increase a person’s want to continue taking them and lead to patterns of abuse such as an increase in dosage, rise in frequency of use and changes in method of indigestion. With a generous amount of pain relievers at their disposal, individuals can slip into misusing their prescription opioids without fully realizing they’re doing so.



 As America becomes more aware of the opioid crisis at hand, multiple organizations and individuals are stepping up to combat it. The National Institute of Health (a component of HHS) recently met with pharmaceutical companies and research centers to discuss preventative measures, such as new non-addictive pain relief methods and technologies to treat opioid use disorders. Businesses like Wal-Mart are limiting the supply of first-time opioid prescriptions at their pharmacies. Even policymakers and stakeholders are actively discussing ways that we can combat this crisis as a nation, suggesting solutions such as medical education, public education and an increased access to addiction treatment.

 Although these approaches are all potential ways for America to tackle the opioid crisis, they don’t answer the question on what to do with excess pain relievers that have already been prescribed. In 2015, the acting director of the CDC reported that there were enough opioids prescribed in the U.S. “for every American to be medicated around the clock for three weeks”. CNN recently reported that in 2016, 6.2. billion hydrocodone pills and 5 billion oxycodone tablets were prescribed nationwide. In order to keep them from being misused, individuals who are prescribed opioids need to practice proper medication disposal for unused pills.

 The Drug Enforcement Administration is one organization that’s providing a solution for individuals with leftover prescriptions: National Prescription Drug Take Back Days. This initiative asks Americans from around the nation to clean out their medicine cabinets and safely and anonymously turn them in at specific locations for proper medication disposal. Since the DEA began National Prescription Drug Take Back Days in 2010, the amount of prescription drugs returned have reached record numbers. In April 2018, they collected a record-setting 949,046 pounds of potentially dangerous, expired, unused and unwanted prescriptions at over 5,800 collection sites, helping prevent potential misuse and unwanted overdoses. They’ve also made frequent medication disposal easier with year-round medication disposal locations throughout the U.S.

 If you are prescribed opioids to relieve pain, it’s important to recognize the addictive tendencies of these medications and be aware of the signs indicating opioid abuse, dependence or addiction. Rather than leaving leftover prescription opioids in your medicine cabinet—where they could be misused by a friend, family member or yourself—take part in the DEA’s new medication disposal initiatives and take back the pills that could take a life.