The Opioid Epidemic

By, Dr. Kerris Dillon

Over 130 Americans die each day from opioid overdoses ( This means that over 47,000 people die each year in the United States from this drug. Not included in these statistics are the 800,000 Americans that use heroine each year and the 15,000 that die from it ( There are more babies being born in the United States addicted to opioids than ever before. What has caused this opioid epidemic? Why are opioids so dangerous?


Before discussing the history of opioids, it is important to first draw a distinction between opiates and opioids. Opiates are drugs that are made from opium (such as morphine) whereas opioids are drugs that are generally synthetically made (such as oxycodone and hydrocodone). In the 1920’s the United States began developing a drug to assist with pain relief and its goal was to make it less dangerous than morphine. In the 1930’s, German scientists under the direction of Adolph Hitler created Demerol to no longer be reliant on shipments of opium from other nations. When WWII ended, American soldiers seized the plans to create these synthetic painkillers and started almost immediately (

It was in the early 1990’s when the American government started to take notice of a problem with opioids. This is the first time that research statistics noticed a sharp increase in opioid-related deaths in the United States. The early 1990’s saw an increase in the prescribing of opioids because the medical community was assured by pharmaceutical companies that these drugs were not addictive. From the early 1990’s to the later 1990’s, pharmaceutical companies continued to assure medical professionals that opioids were not addictive and could be used for medical ailments beyond cancer. In 1999, statistics showed that over 85% of patients using opioids were using them for non-cancer diagnoses (

As the nation continued to study this epidemic, there was one relationship they kept noticing. The locations that prescribed the most opioids were also the places that had the most issues with opioid abuse. Authorities and the government attempted to limit the number of prescriptions written and in 2010 another devastating statistic arose. Deaths due to heroine (an illegal opioid) skyrocketed as addicts moved from prescription medications to the cheaper, but illegal form. The demographics of the users didn’t seem to matter. The age, SES, or sex of the individual were not patterned, which made the epidemic harder to fight. America saw its worst statistic in 2016 when 20,000 deaths occurred and the Center for Disease Control (CDC) put guidelines on the prescribing of legal medications (

One of the reasons that opioids are so dangerous is because they can easily be misused. 11 million people admit to misusing their opioid prescriptions in a given year. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 87.2% of Americans take their medications properly whereas the remainder state reasons for their misuse (Lipari, Williams, & Van Horn, 2017). It is this organization that surveys a large sample of 12 year-old children and older to find out if they use their prescription medications accurately or misuse them. The misuse of medication means a person shares their medications with others or do not take the correct dose authorized by their healthcare practitioner.

When asked the reasons for their misuse of prescription medication, individuals stated pain as the leading explanation for their change in dosing. The second reason given was to purposely get high and the third reason was to relieve tension and become relaxed. Other reasons stated were decreasing tensions, help with emotions, getting to sleep, increasing or decreasing the effects of other drugs, or because they were addicted to it. With 60% of individuals stating they misused their opioids because of pain, this means focusing on pain-reducing technologies and therapies will become very important in the future. Alternative medicine and the impact of Reiki therapy, essential oils, preventative measures, as well as scientific innovations will need to be researched. Better education will also be needed so future individuals do not fall prey to these addictive, but beneficial medicines.

Rachel N. Lipari Ph.D., Matthew Williams, Ph.D. and Struther L. Van Horn, M.A. (2017). Why do Adults Misuse Prescription Drugs?

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