Changing the way we look at the opioid epidemic and treat it

Most Americans are well aware that our country is experiencing an opioid crisis. Since 2010 the number of opioid-related deaths has nearly quadrupled in the United States with the total percentage of deaths continuing to increase every year. In 2017 the President declared the opioid epidemic a National Public Health Emergency and promised to create a meaningful change in our country’s approach to the drug crisis. With $1.8 Billion now being awarded by the government in grants to combat the opioid epidemic.

Although treatment facilities such as detox centers, rapid detox centers, and medication-assisted treatment centers have been slowly trickling down across the nation we have still continued to see people from all walks of life fall victim to opioid epidemic. Whether it’s a war veteran, an infant child of an addict mother, or even the doctors and nurses themselves, all have the same probability to fall prey to opioid addiction. These people do not choose to stay addicted willingly or otherwise, but rather opioid addiction is an illness just like any other and should be viewed as such when it comes to treatment.

We as a society have decided that for the last 50 years, we should approach opioid addiction as though it were a mental weakness on the part of the patient or user. Considering the state of the crisis, why is it that we continue to use the same types of treatment that we have been using for the past several decades and expect different results?

The drugs themselves have even begun to evolve with the epidemic continuing to worsen and evolve due to the continuing increase in the use of synthetic opioids such as tramadol and fentanyl. Many of the sources for these drugs are coming from illicit manufacturers rather than medically prescribed but the sudden shift towards these drugs in the wake of an already harrowing crisis has left a devastating effect on the country. Synthetic opioids made up 59.8% of all opioid-related overdose deaths in 2017 alone, a 14% increase from the previous year. With a continuously changing landscape of highly potent drugs now becoming more readily available shouldn’t our countries physicians not also strive to find a more effective solution to the problem?

Why is it that we relegate treatment to only be based around the mental strength of the patient and not on the physical and neurological functions that are going on in their body? Just what is it that is holding us back? In order to treat this national health crisis in a way that will change the playing field in this country, it is important for us to first change the way we think about the problem in order to move forward towards a more effective solution.

When it comes to rehab centers anyone who has ever attended or has had a loved one attend can tell you that we are setting people up for failure. The relapse rate in these types of facilities is so high that many times addicts can go 3 or 4 times and still fall victim to relapse right after whether it is due to their environment or lack of support system available. When it comes to medication assisted treatment, their solution is to treat the addiction with other forms of opiates as a solution to cravings. But is replacing one opioid with another truly solving the problem? It is important that we ask ourselves whether or not solving the symptoms and side effects of opioid addiction should even be considered a solution.

It is not often that we consider how easy it is for things to spiral out of control if we get injured and are prescribed painkillers by a doctor. Whether it’s for a simple back injury at work, surgery, cancer treatment, or even a car accident anyone can fall into dependency. The longer that someone is dependent on opiates the more the makeup of the receptors in the brain begin to change and the easier it is to fall into dependency as the body begins to lose the ability for it to produce natural painkillers (endorphins). It is for this reason that addicts will begin to feel pain at a higher threshold than other people and continue to fall down the well of dependency with external opiates.

To ask someone who is dependent on opioids, who has fallen into a vicious cycle that has changed the physical makeup of the receptors in their brain, to go through a detox and suffer through withdrawal and likely fall victim to relapse again and again is inherently cruel. If you have ever had a loved one fall prey to addiction you will understand that it is not a weakness in the person. Anyone can fall victim to this type of addiction, and it becomes so difficult to see someone continue down this path without the right kind of solution available to them. Before continuing to invest in the crisis first we must change the way we think about the crisis, its victims, and what success in opioid treatment looks like. Only then will we be able to tackle the long battle into this national health crisis.