In the midst of the United States’ opioid epidemic, it is troubling to think that opioids are still one of the most commonly prescribed drugs. Everyone is well aware that taking drugs comes with many implications, but there is a reason that doctors and patients are willing to take this potentially huge risk. Prescription opioid use is quite prominent, due to its effectiveness against short-term and long-term pain. The risk clearly outweighs the reward, but opioid use prevails over all other types of pain medication. The reason for this is because opioids are in surplus supply, readily available, and heavily researched. The United States government has not looked into many other options that could potentially decrease the use of prescription opioids, but if they did, perhaps researchers will be able to come up with a safer alternative. In order to lessen the use of this drug, there needs to be a drug with the benefit opioids give without the high risk of addiction.
The natural chemical found in the opium poppy plant is called opiate, and this is what professionals use to make the type of drug known as opioids. Opioid is an umbrella term that identifies drugs that are used as painkillers; not including over-the-counter medications such as ibuprofen and tylenol. Opioids are able to ease varying degrees of pain, and are incredibly helpful when a patient is physically suffering from surgery, injury, or a chronic disease. When someone takes an opioid like OxyContin, the chemical interacts with pain receptors throughout the nervous system, lessening the intensity of pain. Just like any other medication, there are side effects to taking opioids. Of course, the most obvious side effects would be dependence and addiction, but opioids can cause other health problems, as well. Opioids can cause nausea, memory loss, and can decrease blood pressure and heart rate. This can be difficult for people who are taking other medications, who could benefit from the use of opioids but cannot take them due to the mixture of all the strong medications in their body.
The CDC has spent many years gathering information about the risks and benefits of opioids, and have published the Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain which states that “clinicians should prescribe immediate-release opioids instead of extended-release /long-acting (ER/LA) opioids.” These modifications allow doctors to use opioids for many types of situations. A patient suffering an injury from a car accident may be prescribed a short-term opioid medication, where the effects of the drug only last a few hours. On the other hand, a person with chronic pain who has tried every other treatment option may benefit from a long-acting opioid.
It is bittersweet, but medical professionals have been able to gather so much research and data about opioid use and opioid addiction due to the opioid epidemic. The United States government is willing to put a lot of money and man-power into studying the effects of opioids and opioid addiction since it has been plaguing the country for many years. There is not much that researchers do not know about opioids, and scientists have found ways to change and manipulate the duration of opioids effects thanks to all the research the United States government has supported.
Not only can opioids be modified to fit a person’s degree of pain, but they are also widely available in the United States. In 2019 the CDC released the total number of opioids that were described in that year, and over 153 million were given to patients across the U.S.. Opioids sole purpose is to help people manage pain, so it makes sense that it would be used vastly. In the United States, accidents are incredibly common and thousands of people suffer from injuries daily. Opioids are very effective in treating short-term pain from things like accidents, but that is not exactly what makes people addicted to opioids.
Not only do opioids block pain receptors in the brain and spinal cord, they also create a feeling of euphoria in those taking it. This is the feeling that people are likely to succumb to when they take opioids. It does not matter if the treatment was meant to help with short-term or long-term pain, the combined power of not feeling pain and an overwhelming feeling of euphoria makes the risk of addiction incredibly high. The National Institute on Drug Abuse states that “regular use- even as prescribed by a doctor- can lead to dependence and, when misused, can lead to addiction, overdose incidents, and deaths.” If this feeling of euphoria, or the “high” that people feel were nonexistent, no one would become addicted to opioid medications.
There is no doubt that opioid abuse is a huge problem in the United States. In order to lessen the damage of the opioid epidemic, there needs to be a safer alternative that can still help patients that are dealing with long-term or short-term pain. This drug would need to be able to block pain receptors in the brain and nervous system at the same, or at least a similar, level of strength as opioids. Not only does it have to be powerful, but it cannot give patients a sense of euphoria when they take it. Instead, that component should be replaced with something that makes people feel mildly uncomfortable. That way, opioid users do not feel compelled to continue taking the drug once they are no longer prescribed to it.
Unfortunately, one of the biggest problems with this idea is that there is not enough funding for researchers to run tests and evaluate possible replacements. Opioids have been thoroughly tested and studied by scientists and medical professionals, and they are well aware of the benefits and every possible risk. Since opioids are so variable, there can be a different type of opioid medication that will properly fit a patient’s needs. In order for an alternative drug to take the place of opioids, researchers will need to know all that they can to make sure every patient receives the right type of medication.
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2021, March 03). Opioids. Retrieved March 07, 2021, from https://www.drugabuse.gov/drug-topics/opioids
U.S. opioid Dispensing RATE MAPS. (2020, December 07). Retrieved March 07, 2021, from https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/maps/rxrate-maps.html
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Public Health Service, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2016) Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain, Journal of Pain & Palliative Care Pharmacotherapy, from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/citedby/10.3109/15360288.2016.1173761?scroll=top&needAccess=true
Butanis, B. (2018, April 30). What are opioids? Retrieved March 07, 2021, from https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/opioids/what-are-opioids.html