When your doctor writes you a prescription, you expect to find relief, not a new set of problems. But an increasing number of Americans are becoming addicted to opioid analgesics, often called painkillers.
Prescription opioid use has skyrocketed over the past two decades, and overdoses have followed suit. Between 1999 and 2015, prescription opioid overdoses quadrupled, leaving more than 183,000 Americans dead. What can be done to curb the epidemic? It starts with awareness.
Test your opioid knowledge now with this short true or false test.1. True or false? Opioid analgesics are recommended for treating chronic pain.
FALSE. Opioid analgesics don’t cure pain; they instead increase a person’s pain threshold and reduce the perception of that pain. They are highly effective at treating acute pain, which is temporary pain resulting from an injury or surgery. They are not recommended for chronic pain that persists well after a wound has healed or has no identifiable cause, as opioid use comes with a high risk of tolerance (needing to take more to get the same results).
2. True or false? The chances of getting addicted to an opioid pain medication are low.
FALSE. Nearly a quarter of Americans who are prescribed opioids for chronic pain will become addicted, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “The essence of the problem is that people who take opioids often develop a tolerance to the medication, so they have to increase the dose,” says Jianguo Cheng, M.D., president-elect of the American Academy of Pain Medicine. “When the dose is increased, adverse side effects also increase.” Those adverse effects include physical dependence, increased sensitivity to pain, nausea, sleepiness, depression and respiratory problems that can lead to death.3. True or false? Opioid painkillers can be used safely.
TRUE. Despite their risks, opioid analgesics do have a place in medicine. “Using a relatively small dose for a short time helps maintain function and control acute pain so patients can do their jobs and take care of their families,” Cheng says. “Those patients are the ones who can benefit from this therapy.” For example, opioids are commonly prescribed for a specified time when healing after surgery.4. True or false? Opioid use among teenagers is rising.
FALSE. Opioid use among teens has ebbed and flowed over the past several decades. Teen use rose in the 1980s, fell in the ’90s and rose again in the early 2000s. But since 2013, opioid use among teens has dropped. Still, Cheng encourages parents to be vigilant with teenagers and intervene when necessary. “Teens may gain access to opioids through family members, peers and others on the street,” he says. “Parents should be mindful.” Research has shown that teens usually use opioids they are prescribed, for medical reasons, before they abuse them through nonmedical use.5. True or false? Most people who abuse opioids switch to heroin when they can’t get pills.
FALSE. Heroin is an opioid street drug that is chemically very similar to prescription opioids. It can even be cheaper and easier to get in many communities. And it’s true that heroin use is almost always precipitated by prescription opioid abuse. In fact, about 80 percent of heroin users start with opioid pain medications, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. But that doesn’t mean all prescription drug abusers will go on to use heroin. Only about 4 percent of abusers make that leap.
If you or someone you know needs help with opioid abuse, please contact Beaufort County Alcohol & Drug Abuse at (843) 255-6000.