Opioid Use and Risk of Overdose a Growing Problem

While medical marijuana used to grab a significant amount of attention due to its popularity, the most common now is the opioid painkiller. A recent post in the LA Times captures the problems associated with the use of this drug, including its addictive properties.

Opioids are easily abused as they produce a sense of well-being or a high that makes the user feel as if they have achieved a high. The problem is that users continue to seek this high and addiction can develop while an individual also puts themselves at risk of accidental overdose.

To help try and curb this use and abuse, the United States Food and Drug Administration last year ordered several pharmaceutical companies to develop plans to help reduce inappropriate use.

While such efforts may help this growing epidemic, the very thing that makes the drugs work on reducing pain is also what leads to the addiction. Opioids work by attaching to specific receptors in the brain and blocking the perception of pain. Over time and long-term use, the drugs can cause physical and chemical changes in the brain’s pathways.

"Somewhere between 5 and 10% of people who take opioids regularly become addicted," said Dr. Nora Volkow in the LA Times. Dr. Volkow is director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse at the National Institutes of Health.

Aside from the problems of addiction, the risk of accidental overdose is very high with opioids. When too much of the drug is taken, breathing can slow and even stop completely. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fatal poisonings that involve these medications more than tripled from 1999 through 2006 from 4,000 to more than 13,500.

Data from the 2007 National Survey on Drug Use and Health shows that more than 5 million Americans are currently using pain-relieving medications such as Vicodin, OxyContin and Percocet for non medical reasons.