Painkillers, especially opiates, have been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years. Opiates are derived from the opium poppy have been prevalent in the medical field for centuries and it was in the early nineteenth century that morphine became a widely used painkiller that first caused the spread of addiction.
Over time the recreational use of opium grew and drugs like morphine and heroin became a serious problem that led to their illegal status. In the 1980s and 90s, new prescription painkillers came on the market that were synthetic opiates including Vicodin, Oxycontin and Percocet.
While these types of painkillers can be useful for people recovering from surgery or dealing with chronic pain, the amount of people abusing prescription opiates has increased to epidemic levels in the past decade.
The Rise of Prescription Opioids
When prescription opiate painkillers first became prevalent in the 1980s, it was part of a response to increasing concern that doctors were undertreating patient's pain problems. To resolve this issue doctors and medical students were encouraged to consider the severity of pain in each individual patient and treat them with an adequate amount of medication.
Doctors and students were also mistakenly told that patients could not become dependent on narcotics if they were taking them for legitimate pain reasons. This is now known to be a false belief as many patients develop serious addictions in spite of their genuine pain problems.
Some opioid pain medications were also thought to be safer alternatives to nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs. In addition to these misconceptions, the drug companies that created many of the new opioid painkillers and patient-advocacy groups were pushing doctors to prescribe them to patients.
Although patients may have previously been undertreated for pain, this push in the direction of prescribing more painkillers had unintended consequences. Prescription abuse began to rise as the number of painkillers being given to patients tripled from 1999 to 2010.
Growing Rates of Prescription Abuse
In today's climate, prescription drug abuse has increased to the point of being called a national health epidemic. As the number of doctors prescribing painkillers increased in the past decade, the number of substance abuse treatment admissions for prescription pain relievers has also increased 400 percent.
In American culture people have become more reliant on medication to solve even minor pain or anxiety problems and they turn to prescription drugs because they are so easy to obtain. The non-medical use of prescription painkillers is now the second-most prevalent form of illicit drug use in America.
The epidemic has grown not only among high- profile celebrity addiction and resulting deaths but throughout all socioeconomic strata. Experts say that the push among doctors to be more aggressive in addressing pain has been one of the key elements in the rapid increase of people coping with prescription addictions.
Another issue that people point to as relating to this increase in addiction is the American culture of immediate gratification. Addiction specialists believe that people now are unwilling to endure even the slightest discomfort and seek stronger medication when non-addictive drugs would be adequately effective.
Various circumstances have come together to fuel prescription abuse into an explosive problem in the U.S. Addiction specialists hope that a federal monitoring program could help improve the situation and reduce the number of prescriptions being abused.
Patients could potentially be flagged if they are suspected of abusing drugs because they are obtaining prescriptions from multiple doctors or frequently refilling their medication. In order to reduce the amount of people abusing painkillers, doctors need to be more aware of patients with histories of addiction or certain vulnerabilities to misuse the drugs.
As the epidemic continues to increase, measures need to be taken to help reduce the level of prescription abuse throughout the country.