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The Origin and Causes of the Opioid Epidemic

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Opioid Epidemic in the United States

Deaths caused by drug overdose have been continually increasing over the past several decades, roughly two-thirds of these due to opioid use.

As of 2017, an average of 91 people died each day due to specifically opioid overdose.

How did we get here?

And what can we do to fight against this opioid crisis that is shaking our country?

What is the Opioid Epidemic?

Common Opioids

The opioid epidemic is a plague of opioid addiction and overdose that has swept the United States over the past 20 years.

Common Opioids

The majority of addictions to opioids does not stem from hard and illicit drugs such as heroin. Rather, most begin their addiction to opioids in the form of prescriptive opioids legally prescribed for pain.

Synthetic and semi-synthetic opioids include methadone, oxycodone, hydrocodone, hydromorphone, and oxymorphone. Examples of legal natural opioids are morphine and codeine.

The Science of Opioids

Opioids are commonly prescribed to treat pain, as they bind to receptors in the brain and spinal cord that block pain. This pain blockage can also result in a feeling of euphoria, or "high." It is easy to become addicted to this high feeling, leading to drug misuse.

More compelling than the high, though, is the need to block pain. Your body becomes accustomed to the drugs over time, resulting in a need for continually higher dosages in order to maintain potency.

This frequently leads to a dependency and dangerous addiction on the opioids. These prescriptive opioids can also serve as a gateway to the more dangerous heroin drug.

Increasing Addictions Leading to Crisis

With opioids as a frequent prescription to treat pain, therefore, the number of people addicted to the drug is continually on the rise.

The number of opioid deaths has been so severe in recent years that the United States was declared to be in a public health crisis as of October 2017.

A Brief History of Opioid Use in the US

OxyContin Opioid

Civil War Usage

The use of opioids to treat pain first became prevalent in the United States in the early 1860s as a way to treat wounded soldiers. These soldiers were treated with morphine, and many developed dependencies and addictions to the drug in the years following the war.

The Advent of Heroin

In 1898, the Bayer Company first introduced heroin onto the scene, with the claim that it was less habit-forming than morphine.

Restrictions on Narcotics Passed

Throughout the 1910s-1920s, the U.S. placed restrictions on opioids and narcotics, requiring that formal prescriptions be written as well as outlawing heroin.

Controlled Substances Law

Flash-forward to the 1970s, the Controlled Substances Act is passed, which divides groups into different groupings based on likelihood for abuse and imposes regulations depending on the class.

OxyContin Appears on the Scene

In 1995, Purdue Pharma introduced OxyContin, a version of oxycodone, which was introduced as a gentler and less-addictive opioid pill. Over the next two decades, doctors would increasingly prescribe this and other opioids to treat pain, thus increasing the number of people who develop an addiction.

A State of Crisis

Despite measures and law suits taken against Purdue Pharma, opioids have continued to be heavily prescribed, resulting in more and more addicts and deaths by overdose.

As of October 2017, the U.S. was officially declared to be in a public health crisis and measures are being taken to fight against the opioid crisis.

Recent Causes of the Opioid Crisis

Over-Prescribing and Opioid Epidemic


The roots of the opioid epidemic can be traced back to the over-prescribing of these drugs to treat pain by doctors rather than seeking alternative treatments. These types of pills are generally more covered by insurance policies rather than alternative treatments and therapies, making the drugs essentially an easy alternative.

Targeted Marketing

Drug companies have aggressively marketed their opioid products, such as Purdue Pharma, a non-habit inducing and moderate, despite there being little to no research to back up these claims.

But their marketing has worked, especially that targeted toward doctors—recent studies from Jama Internal Medicine show that the more free meals doctors receive from a drug company, the more likely doctors are to prescribe their drugs.

The Need for Reeducation

Professional medical experts such as Dr. Marc Siegel are now calling for medical students to be taught to prescribe opioids more carefully.

This education process includes training the up-coming doctors how to properly identify pain and the best treatment for it, and then teaching how to apply for waivers so that they are able to prescribe alternative treatments and therapies to opioids.

Opioid Epidemic Statistics

Opioid Epidemic Statistics

The below opioid epidemic statistics are taken from studies done by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for the year 2016.

  • 116 people died from opioid-related overdoses each day.
  • Over 42,000 people died from opioid overdoses over the course of the year.
  • 1 million people had an opioid disorder.
  • 17,087 deaths were caused by overdoses on commonly prescribed opioids.
  • 19,413 deaths resulted from use of other synthetic opioids other than methadone.
  • 15,469 deaths were attributed to heroin overdose

State and Federal Government Actions to Fight the Opioid Epidemic

Federal Government Actions to Fight the Opioid Epidemic

Since the United States was officially declared to be in a state of public health crisis due to the opioid epidemic, state and federal governments have since put plans into action to tackle the crisis and reduce its causes.

The federal government has developed a five-point strategy to fighting the opioid crisis.

Five Federal Strategies to Fight the Opioid Epidemic

  1. Improve accessibility of treatment and rehabilitation services
  2. Promote the use of overdose-reversing drugs
  3. Strengthen public understanding of the epidemic through improved public health surveillance
  4. Support research on reducing pain and addiction
  5. Advance better practices in the first place for pain management and reduction

How Georgetown Behavioral Health Institute Can Help

Having an opioid addiction, even to prescriptive opioids, is no small matter.

If you or someone you know is taking opioids, prescriptive or non, and gaining a dependency or addiction, the first step is to recognize this and reach out for help.

Georgetown Behavioral Health Institute can help fight against opioid addictions by offering help for recovering from addiction.

If you or someone you know needs help treating an opioid dependency or addiction, please feel free to contact us through our website or call us at 512-819-1154 today.