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  • The opioid crisis, also known as the opioid epidemic, is a public health emergency marked by a rapid rise in opioid misuse, addiction, and overdose. 

    During this crisis, more than one million people in the U.S. have died from drug overdoses, most of them involving opioids. Researchers have identified four possible strategies to help end this epidemic.

    1. Reduce Excessive Opioid Prescribing

    Some healthcare providers prescribe opioids too frequently. While opioids work well at easing acute and chronic pain, they are highly addictive. 

    That’s why clinicians should only prescribe opioids in cases where safer pain medications, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil), will not provide adequate pain relief. 

    They should also prescribe the lowest possible strength for the shortest possible amount of time that will offer effective pain management.

    Unfortunately, some clinicians ignore these guidelines. In addition, some patients visit multiple clinicians to get multiple opioid prescriptions. This practice is sometimes called “doctor shopping.” It’s often a sign of opioid addiction (opioid use disorder).

    Opioid Prescribing Laws

    To reduce excessive opioid prescribing, many states have made it illegal for clinicians to prescribe opioids above a certain strength or for more than a few weeks (unless the clinician is prescribing opioids for cancer treatment, palliative care, or end-of-life care). 

    If all 50 states implement these types of laws, the country could see a significant reduction in opioid misuse. 

    Check PDMPs

    States should also require clinicians to check prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMPs) before prescribing opioids. 

    PDMPs are statewide databases that track opioid prescriptions. Pharmacists enter data into PDMPs each time they dispense prescription opioids or other controlled substances. 

    By checking these databases, clinicians can ensure they are not prescribing opioids to people who have already received them from other clinicians through doctor shopping.

    Legislation To Identify Pill Mills

    Finally, states should introduce legislation that enhances surveillance of pain clinics. 

    Such legislation can help law enforcement identify and dismantle pill mills. Pill mills are illegal facilities disguised as pain clinics. Prescribers at these facilities give opioids to people who don’t have a legitimate medical need for them. 

    2. Reduce The Illicit Opioid Supply

    Many opioid overdose deaths involve illicit opioids, especially heroin and illicitly manufactured fentanyl. 

    Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that’s up to 50 times stronger than heroin, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It’s often laced in other drugs, including pills like Xanax and powder drugs like cocaine. 

    Increase Funding & Communication For Law Enforcement

    To reduce the supply of illicit opioids, states should increase funding for law enforcement initiatives that address opioid trafficking. 

    In addition, law enforcement, first responders, and other public health professionals should communicate with each other about opioid distribution trends. There should also be increased communication among federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies. 

    3. Increase Access To Harm Reduction Services

    Harm reduction is a public health approach that aims to reduce overdose and other health risks among people who misuse drugs. 


    One of the most effective forms of harm reduction is an overdose prevention medication called naloxone. Sold under the brand name Narcan, this medication blocks the effects of opioids. It can save lives by quickly reversing opioid overdoses. 

    Recently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved an over-the-counter version of naloxone. Some states have also introduced naloxone vending machines. This increased access could significantly reduce the opioid overdose death rate. 

    Other Forms Of Harm Reduction

    Other forms of harm reduction include:

    • fentanyl test strips, which help people determine whether their drugs have been contaminated with fentanyl, one of the most deadly opioids
    • needle exchange programs, which provide clean needles to people who inject opioids, reducing their risk of infectious disease 
    • referrals to addiction treatment programs 

    According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, harm reduction services can reduce opioid overdose deaths, reduce costly emergency department visits and healthcare services, and connect people with opioid treatment. 

    These benefits could play an important role in ending the opioid crisis. 

    4. Increase Access To Opioid Addiction Treatment

    Like other types of addiction, opioid addiction is treatable. An effective opioid treatment plan includes evidence-based approaches such as medical detox, behavioral therapy, peer support groups, and medication-assisted treatment (MAT)

    In MAT, doctors prescribe medications (particularly buprenorphine, methadone, and naltrexone) to ease opioid cravings and withdrawal symptoms. 

    According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), MAT can help patients stay engaged in addiction treatment and achieve long-term recovery.

    Reduce Common Barriers

    Unfortunately, although over 20 million people in the U.S. live with opioid addiction and other substance use disorders, only 10% of them receive treatment. The most common barriers to treatment include lack of insurance and difficulty finding a treatment provider. 

    Policymakers can increase access to opioid addiction treatment by:

    • expanding access to Medicaid and Medicare
    • providing funding for treatment for people who are uninsured or underinsured
    • making it easier for treatment providers to become certified to prescribe MAT

    If you or someone you love struggles with opioid use or another type of drug use, please reach out to an Ark Behavioral Health specialist. Our drug abuse treatment programs offer personalized, evidence-based interventions to keep you or your loved one safe. 

    Written by Ark Behavioral Health Editorial Team
    ©2024 Ark National Holdings, LLC. | All Rights Reserved.
    This page does not provide medical advice.

    American Medical Association - 90% who need substance-use disorder treatment don’t get it
    The Brookings Institution - How do we tackle the opioid crisis?
    Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - Fentanyl Facts
    National Governors Association - Finding Solutions to the Prescription Opioid and Heroin Crisis: A Road Map for States
    National Institute on Drug Abuse - Harm Reduction
    NPR - More than a million Americans have died from overdoses during the opioid epidemic
    Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration - Medications for Substance Use Disorders
    Wake Forest University School of Medicine - Seeking Solutions: Confronting the Opioid Crisis

    Medically Reviewed by
    Manish Mishra, MBBS
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