In the past several decades, there has been a dramatic increase in the rates of abuse of alcohol and drugs, particularly illicit narcotics and opioids, such as heroin and prescription painkillers. With the increased potency and availability of pharmaceutical painkillers, an extensive black market has emerged, which has allowed people who would otherwise be unable to obtain these substances with a legal, valid prescription access to dangerous substances with high abuse and addiction potential.
In fact, surveys conducted in 2011 indicated that 52 million Americans over the age of 12 had abused prescription drugs, or used them for non-medical purposes at least once in their lives, with more than 6.2 million having done so within the previous month.
Additionally, it’s estimated that 45 people die every day from overdose on prescription painkillers, which is more than overdoses on narcotic drugs heroin and cocaine combined. With opiate addiction being so widespread, it would seem that addiction to and abuse of prescription painkillers and other pills lie at the heart of this global pandemic.
It’s important to educate individuals on prescription painkillers, including what they are, where they came from, and how the opioid pandemic that we find ourselves in seems to have occurred.
What Are Prescription Painkillers?
Simply put, a painkiller is a medication that is taken to relieve pain. There are many such medications that’s aren’t very dangerous and can even be purchased without a prescription from most pharmacies; these include anti-inflammatory pain medications such as ibuprofen and aspirin as well as paracetamol, also known as acetaminophen and is used to relieve pain and fever, making it a common ingredient in cold and flu medicines.
However, it’s the third category of pain reliever—opioids—that present the most danger. Derived from the opium obtained from poppies, opioid medicines have been around in one form or another for hundreds of years. Since opioids were quite effective at treatment pain, they were often used as a treatment in surgical settings and for post-surgical pain maintenance.
In 1804, German pharmacist Friedrich Sertürner synthesized the first and what would become the most common analgesic opioid compound morphine, a synthetic form of opium that’s still commonly used in the medical field around the world today.
Over time, additional compounds and derivatives were created, including another opioid that continues to be used today called codeine, with the goal of finding a form that would offer the optimal pain relief without some of the known negative effects like its addictive potential, nausea, and so on.
Despite continued exposure to opioid painkillers in Westernized societies, development of the semi-synthetic opioid oxycodone coincided with marked increases in painkiller abuse, ushering us into a new era in terms of chemical dependence and addiction.
The Beginning of a Pandemic
Oxycodone was first synthesized in 1917. In 1976, oxycodone began being combined with acetaminophen in order to dilute the rather strong oxycodone before it was sold as the prescription drug Percocet. However, in 1996 the pharmaceutical company Purdue Pharma began to manufacture the drug OxyContin, an extended-release formula that contained between 8 and 16 times the amount of oxycodone in a single pill than a Percocet.
Not only did demand for OxyContin skyrocket due to its effectiveness as a painkiller, but due to its potency the potential for abuse was much higher, increasing street demand as well and creating a sort of mania. Since all the other pain medications that were offered at the time—such as Vicodin (hydrocodone) and Percocet—were diluted with acetaminophen, recreational drug users preferred OxyContin since a single pill offered the same high as a handful of the other forms that were available.
Due to its high potency, OxyContin also became a favorite of doctors too, since they could offer patients who suffered from chronic pain with lower doses of a stronger pain medication, which was seen as a more practical, efficient means of pain management despite the high risk for abuse and dependency. As such, many identify the onset of the current opioid pandemic to the development and release of OxyContin.
Additionally, this love affair with OxyContin led to users developing more effective routes of administration that would allow them to achieve a more powerful high; this included realizing that crushing and influflating (snorting) the pill intensified its effects, as did preparing it for intravenous injection.
At the time, heroin was still mostly restricted to urban areas, but since even those living in rural areas could access a pharmacy, many individuals began seeing multiple doctors so they would receive duplicate prescriptions for the drug, which quickly made it very easy to users find.
However, even users who used OxyContin as prescribed soon found themselves needed more and more of the drug after acquiring a tolerance to oxycodone, leading them to supplementing their dosage with duplicate prescriptions or buying OxyContin on the streets. In a short amount of time, the OxyContin situation quickly spiraled out of control.
New Solutions and New Problems
With the passage of time, other and newer prescription painkillers hit the market—and then the streets—such as Fentanyl and Dilaudid. In 2010, Purdue Pharma began producing tamper-resistant extended-release oxycodone, which had features that prevented abuse of the medication; this included making it unable to be crushed, insoluble in water, and other measures. Many other pharmaceutical companies followed suit, which left individuals who were addicted to opioids looking for alternative substances with which they could sustain their narcotics addictions.
As a consequence of the tamper-resistant reformulations of oxycodone and other painkillers, many opioid addicts turned to heroin, which is what caused the major spike in nationwide heroin addiction levels over the past several years. There have also been areas that had previously had very little abuse of prescription drugs that have experienced much higher levels of Dilaudid and Roxicodone sold on the street.
You’re probably aware that we’re in the midst of a serious opioid pandemic with individuals around the world—from rural and suburban in Oklahoma and Vermont to the urban streets of New York City—suffering from addiction to prescription pain medication and/or heroin.
Just a few years ago, many of today’s addicts never would have imagined encountering and becoming dependent on opioid narcotics. Some of them may even have been prescribed painkillers for legitimate reasons before inadvertently becoming addicted and losing control of their chemical dependence.
It’s very common for individuals suffering from addiction to heroin and prescription pain medication to require a medically-supervised detox period before beginning an inpatient program for addiction, perhaps even needing partial-hospitalization treatment depending on the addiction severity.
Need Addiction Treatment for Prescription Painkillers? Call Us
Addiction is a disease, but there’s help available for those in need. Call us at our 24-helpline at (855) 619-8070 today so you or your loved one can recovery from addiction to alcohol or drugs before the disease can claim another life.