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The Opioid Epidemic | Statistics, Causes, & Treatment

Published on October 5, 2020
the opioid epidemic in the United States

The opioid epidemic in the United States has been the subject of books, television specials, news broadcasts, and movies. 

Every year, this public health crisis is responsible for thousands of overdose deaths across the country. An even greater number of people struggle with opioid use disorder and its negative impact on their lives, especially during the mental health challenges of Covid-19.

History Of The Opioid Epidemic In The United States

Throughout history, humans have shown a propensity for drug addiction. Several substance abuse crises have impacted the United States prior to the opioid epidemic, including a crack epidemic and a heroin epidemic. 

Neither of these epidemics could be blamed on pharmaceutical companies and were simply the result of human nature. The opioid epidemic, however, is a different story. 

The opioid epidemic first emerged in the 1990s, shortly after the FDA approval of prescription painkiller oxycontin. Almost immediately, people began using the drug recreationally. Addiction happened quickly, causing people to look for creative ways to get fraudulent prescriptions. 

Between 1991 and 2011, prescriptions for opioids tripled in number, and as a result: 

  • the government instituted heavier regulations on prescriptions
  • pharmaceutical companies modified pills to prevent abuse
  • doctors became much more careful about prescribing opioids to their patients

Although the number of prescriptions decreased in response to these changes, use of heroin increased, and the opioid epidemic continued. 

Opioid Epidemic 2020

In 2020, the opioid epidemic continues. Although opioid overdose deaths have decreased slightly, many people continue to be impacted by opioid misuse as the coronavirus continues to change our day-to-day lives. 

Health care providers, health departments, and health care agencies across the United States are working with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to combat this epidemic by collecting data, providing access to treatment, and promoting prevention. 

Types Of Opioids

Different types of opioid pain relievers are available to treat mild, severe, and chronic pain. 

Examples of prescription opioids include:

Prescription opioids may also be purchased illegally or even made for illegal sale. Another common opioid used recreationally is heroin, which is not available with a prescription. 

Any opioid can be addictive, and all opioids can cause fatal overdose if taken in excess. 

Opioid Epidemic Statistics

Many of the statistics related to the opioid epidemic are alarming. 

Here are some statistics that highlight the severity of the epidemic in the United States:

  • Based on data from 2018, approximately 128 people die in the United States every day because of opioid overdose. 
  • The economic loss due to prescription opioid abuse in the United States is $78.5 billion annually. 
  • More than 67,000 people died of drug overdose in the United States during 2018. More than 70 percent of these deaths involved an opioid. 
  • As many as 12 percent of patients who are prescribed an opioid will develop a substance use disorder. 
  • 80 percent of people who use heroin misused prescription opioids first. 
  • Since 1999, more than 760,000 drug overdose deaths occurred in the U.S.

Reducing Opioid Overdoses

The incidence of opioid overdoses has declined slightly in recent years, largely because of efforts to combat this problem directly. One of the ways opioid overdoses have been reduced is through better monitoring and regulation of opioid prescriptions. 

In addition, all states have made an effort to increase awareness and availability of naloxone, a drug that can reverse the course of opioid overdose and save lives if administered in time. 

Naloxone, or brand name Narcan, is now available at pharmacies and community-based organizations around the country, and can also be administered by: 

  • first responders
  • emergency department personnel
  • law enforcement officials

What Causes The Opioid Epidemic?

Many different factors contribute to the opioid epidemic, including:

  • human nature, as humans are prone to misuse mind-altering substances 
  • pharmaceutical companies that manufactured addictive drugs like oxycodone and failed to warn the public about its risks 
  • unscrupulous doctors who overprescribe opioids; drug trade on the street 
  • mixing prescription opioids with other prescription drugs, like benzodiazepines
  • socioeconomic factors that make addiction more prominent

Where Do We Go From Here?

To fight against the opioid epidemic, governments all over the country are investing funds and developing targeted rehab programs and mental health services. 

According to the CDC, efforts to combat the opioid epidemic include: 

  • monitoring trends related to drug use, overdose deaths, and treatment outcomes
  • investing in research to find better overdose prevention measures and treatment approaches 
  • providing resources to states to help them offer better treatment to patients
  • increasing public awareness of the opioid epidemic.

Nonetheless, the opioid epidemic still continues. Individuals and families can aid in the fight against the opioid epidemic by seeking mental and behavioral health treatment for themselves or their loved ones who are addicted to opioids. 

Opioid Addiction Treatment

Opioid addiction is a serious condition, but effective treatment is available in all states. Patients in opioid addiction treatment programs may benefit from group therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, counseling, and medication-assisted treatment. 

Opioid addiction treatment programs may be outpatient or inpatient, depending on the patient’s needs. 

Other services, such as career assistance, may also be available to help patients rebuild their lives after they leave treatment. 

To prevent relapse, most opioid addiction treatment programs recommend aftercare to patients, including ongoing group meetings or peer recovery coaching.

To learn about how we treat opioid use disorder, please connect with us today.

Written by Ark Behavioral Health Editorial Team
This page does not provide medical advice.

American Council on Science and Health - A Brief History Of The Opioid Epidemic
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) - Understanding the Epidemic
National Institute on Drug Abuse - Opioid Overdose Crisis
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) - Opioid Overdose
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services - Opioid Crisis
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services - Opioid Crisis Statistics

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