Opioids also referred to as prescription pain medicine or narcotics are extremely addicting and lethal, if taken in a high enough dosage. Opioid dependence affects nearly 5 million people in the United States and leads to approximately 17,000 deaths annually. Most individuals do not understand the different strengths of each opioid and those opioids that are sold on the street often do not have the strengths and they can also be impure, resulting in potentially even higher death rates. Unaware of the strength of their narcotic, unsuspecting users are overdosing on fentanyl-laced heroin and synthetic opioids at an alarming rate. Opioid addiction is not a choice and more often than not opioid addiction stems from an innocent prescription due to acute pain. Between 1999 and 2010 the rate of opioid prescriptions in the United States quadrupled, culminating with enough pharmaceutical opioids in circulation for every American to have their own prescription bottle. The addictive nature and historic over-prescription of opiates are at the root of the epidemic. Whether it is a traumatic accident, a surgery, or an injury; acute pain can be unbearable and can result in work absence and feelings of despair. Acute pain is usually treated with prescription opioids, which do relieve certain types of acute pain. Most individuals do not predict they will become hooked on these pain medications however most opioid addictions occur secondary to innocent prescription pain medications for acute pain. The euphoria coupled with the lack of pain is enough for individuals to want more pain pills and some doctors will give refills, others will not. Individuals will visit different doctors or go into multiple emergency rooms in an attempt to receive another prescription for painkillers and once the prescription pills no longer have an effect, some individuals may even resort to heroin.
What causes the addiction potential?
Not everyone who is prescribed opioids for acute pain becomes addicted. Why is that? Some individuals have a genetic predisposition for addiction in general which is due to their genetic makeup in their DNA. Individuals with a first-degree relative who suffered from an opioid addiction are significantly more likely to develop the same problem compared to others without such a family history. Individuals with certain personality traits and temperaments that are more prone to novelty and impulsivity are more likely to acquire an addiction. Environmental factors such as peer influences also play a role in the development of opioid use and dependence. In fact, experts believe that a necessary function related to emotion is the ability to regulate extreme mood states. When children are not taught adaptive coping mechanisms for dealing with stress and the associated negative mood states, they grow up searching for other ways to decrease their distress. If they encounter opioids through peers or other means, the discovery of the resulting pleasure or sense of elation often results in the adoption of opioid use as their main means of coping. This also applies for individuals who have untreated mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder who are trying to cope with their feelings and will use opioids as their coping mechanism.
Numbing emotional pain
Our emotions are regulated by structures in the limbic system known as the amygdala. As human, we tend to thrive on positive emotions and try to hide or numb our negative emotions. Our brains are all processing a low level of stress and anxiety however we do not recognize them until they heighten and come into our conscious awareness. For many, it is difficult to face and work through negative emotions and many individuals use
alcohol, painkillers and unhealthy behaviors to cope. Opioids, in particular, create a sense of euphoria and therefore allow individuals to feel comfortably numb and overtime this can lead to tolerance, dependence and addiction.