There is a silent epidemic of drug addiction that is just becoming known to the American public opinion. It is an epidemic that is affecting people of all ages, including the elderly. President Barack Obama spoke about her in the opening minutes of his last State of the Union address. It is an epidemic that in many cases has been triggered by thousands upon thousands of well-meaning prescriptions written by doctors. We are referring to the epidemic of addiction to heroin and to prescription pain relievers known as opiates. How opiates affect the body and what are the warning signs for dependence?

Opium and opiates

Both opium in its raw form, and natural opiates, have been used since time immemorial as the most potent pain relievers, the main ones being morphine and codeine. At the beginning of the last century derivatives of opiates were manufactured, including heroin, oxycodone, methadone and fentanyl.

I’m sure you’ve heard one of those names. For example, a family member or friend with terminal cancer may have been given morphine to relieve severe pain caused by the disease. It is also likely that you have taken one of these pain relievers, such as oxycodone or codeine. The point is that both pure opium and natural and synthetic derivatives have enormous addictive power.

How they affect us

As we have mentioned, the main action of opiates is their analgesic effect, especially in the control of severe pain. In addition to this analgesic effect, opiates exert a series of effects on the body, including marked euphoria and anxiety, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, profuse sweating, constipation and fatigue. In high doses, opioids have a very serious side effect: they depress the respiratory center in the brain and can cause death from respiratory arrest. Unfortunately, these substances are highly addictive, causing the dangerous withdrawal syndrome when you do not have the drug. This syndrome is characterized by severe bouts of nausea, vomiting, panic attacks, severe muscle pain, insomnia, and high fever.

The addiction epidemic

An estimated 259 million prescriptions for opioid pain relievers were written by physicians in 2012 – enough for every American adult to have a bottle of pills, “according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And while it is true that many people start their addiction using the heroin they get on the black market for drugs, it has been seen that one in two women and one in three men developed their addiction to heroin from a prescription medication of a pain reliever such as codeine or oxycodone. In this regard, contrary to the belief that the vast majority of prescriptions for opioid pain relievers are prescribed by a small group of physicians, a recent study in California found that such prescriptions are actually issued by many, many doctors.

Recently, for example, I had dental work done and one of the young dentists prescribed 30 capsules of oxycodone, “just in case” I had pain. The pain was not severe and I did not need to take any of the capsules. Upon returning to the clinic in a month, they re-prescribed 30 capsules of the same medicine, without asking me if I had used the previous ones. If I had been an addict or drug dealer, I would have had 60 capsules to resell on the black market, and no doubt I would have gotten more prescriptions from doctors, claiming I was in a lot of pain.

So severe is the problem that a few weeks ago, the CDC released a proposal for doctors to use a guide to prescribing opioids for chronic pain.

How to manage your pain

Pain is a complex phenomenon that has two components: physical and emotional. Physical pain is determined by stimulation of the nerves that supply the painful area. Emotional pain is felt in the brain and is different from person to person, defining what is called sensitivity or pain threshold. In the presence of pain, your doctor must determine its cause, type, intensity, frequency, and will advise you on the most appropriate medication. If the pain is mild to moderate, it is usual to start with aspirin or a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), such as ibuprofen, naproxen, diclofenac, etc. Many people are also turning to natural supplements, such as Delta 8 THC, which shows promising results in terms of pain management.

If your doctor prescribes an opioid-type pain reliever, including codeine, fentanyl, hydrocodone, hydromorphone, meperidine, morphine, oxycodone, and tramadol, you need to know that these medications, beneficial as they are, have the potential to cause dependence and are highly addictive, so they should be used for short periods of time.

There are seven signs that alert you to drug dependence:

  • You’re thinking more than you should about medicine. That is, you are more attentive than due to the schedule or the dose of the medicine.
  • You start taking more of the medicine; you self-medicate because you think that what you take is not enough. This is a very important sign of dependence on medicine, your body is “getting used to it.”
  • You look for other doctors who prescribe the same medicine. It is not uncommon for the dependent or addict to visit other doctors or call friendly doctors with some excuse to get the medicine prescribed.
  • You start looking for medicine elsewhere. For example, you steal medicine from the medicine cabinet of a friend’s house, you buy the medicine on the internet, you falsify a prescription or buy the medicine on the black market.
  • You realize that you are taking the medicine for several months. In other words, what should have been a temporary treatment has become a permanent treatment.
  • You are offended if someone points out that you might be abusing the medicine. Your excuse is “you don’t know what it’s like to have pain” or “without my medicine, I can’t function.”
  • You realize, or someone makes you notice, that you are changing in your way of being. Whether you are neglecting your presentation, language, hours of sleep or food.

Dependence and addiction to opiate drugs is becoming a serious public health problem in the United States, so the collaboration of all of society is necessary to combat it.