Every three weeks, more Americans die of an opioid overdose than died in the September 11th attacks, according to an interim report published by President Donald Trump’s Opioid Commission July 31, 2017. An estimated 142 people in the U.S. die every day from opioids. In one study, 16.5% of deaths occurred in cases where the patient was taking opioids exactly as prescribed by their doctor, without misuse.1 And while these numbers certainly include people addicted to illegal drugs like heroin and fentanyl, it also includes those you wouldn’t typically expect.
In 2015, 87 children died of opioid intoxication, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.2 These have mostly been young children who stumbled upon illegal or legally prescribed opioids and died. Also in 2015, almost 14,000 people age 45-plus died from an opioid overdose,3 many of whom became addicted to the drugs because they were prescribed to them by their medical provider. In that very same year, the amount of opioids prescribed in the U.S. was enough for every American to be medicated1 around the clock for three weeks, according to the interim report by the Opioid Commission.
Let’s read that again: the amount of opioids prescribed in the U.S. in 2015 was enough to medicate every American 24/7 for three full weeks. We don’t blame you if you find that statement to be alarming. But how did we get here?
What Are Opioids and How Did They Become Such a Problem?
Opioids are a class of drugs that include illegal drugs heroin and fentanyl, as well as prescription pain relievers such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, morphine,4 and more, according to the National Institute of Drug Abuse. In addition to pain relief, they produce a feeling of euphoria, which is part of the reason the drugs are so addictive.
In a report from May 2014 released by the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, Dr. Nora D. Volkow wrote that the current epidemic is the likely result of three factors: drastic increases in prescriptions written, greater social acceptability for using medications for different purposes, and aggressive marketing by pharmaceutical companies.5
In simple terms, most people have become addicted to opioids not for the thrill, but because they took a prescribed pain killer for legitimate pain and became addicted as a result.
The problem is that most of us will suffer from chronic or severe pain at some point throughout our lifetime. In 2015, more than 25 million Americans reported having pain every day for the previous three months,6 according to the National Institutes of Health. And we’re sure we don’t need to tell you that being in pain not only is, well, painful, but also can have severe negative effects on one’s quality of life, social, family, and work environments.7 It’s unrealistic to expect even the most conscientious patient to ignore pain or to “power through” it with over-the-counter medications. Instead, it’s important to fully consider a comprehensive approach to pain management.
How to Avoid Opioid Addiction and Manage Pain Responsibly
When undergoing surgery or facing chronic pain, first consult with your doctor to identify the best method for pain management. Luckily, mainstream medicine is embracing a wider variety of treatments for pain,8 which is making it easier for patients to seek the right treatment for themselves.
“As we learn more about the harmful effects of chronic opioid use, non-opioid modalities have proven far more effective and with far fewer harmful side effects and little risk of physical dependence and abuse,” says Dr. Shahbaz Farnad, MD, an assistant professor of anesthesiology & pain management at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Medical Center. These non-opioid treatment modalities can include interventional techniques such as injections, physical therapy, yoga/exercise, acupuncture, and non-opioid medications, according to Dr. Farnad.
Various studies show that in addition to these interventional techniques, natural supplements can be effective in managing pain as well. A 2016 study showed that the natural substance l-tetrahydropalmatine can help alleviate certain kinds of pain9 in mice. Some studies have shown that the natural supplement willow bark can decrease pain and inflammation.10 And there is overwhelming research that shows that Omega 3 polyunsaturated fatty acids can provide decrease inflammation.11 If considering pain management through natural supplements, first consider the type of pain you’re in, its cause, and then choose the supplements that best address your specific issue.
When in need of any type of pain management, whether due to surgery, injury, or illness, it can be beneficial to have an honest conversation with your physician regarding the need for opioids and alternative treatment options.12 It is also recommended that you know the signs of opioid addiction prior to beginning treatment, according to the American Addiction Centers.
More than 100 people are dying in the U.S. each day, and knowing your risks can help you manage your pain in a way that’s the most healthy, comprehensive approach for you.
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