The Rise of Opioid Misuse: What Causes the Addiction?

Stressed female

The U.S. is currently facing an opioid crisis. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), from 1999 to 2018, an estimated 450,000 people overdosed on opioids. The CDC also states that in 2018, about 128 people passed away daily due to opioid overdose.

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, opioids are a group of drugs that help the human nervous system produce feelings of pleasure and pain relief. Oxycodone, fentanyl, methadone, codeine, and morphine are some examples of these drugs that healthcare providers prescribe to patients to manage severe or chronic pain.

While the use of opioids stems from good intentions, the problem is that they are highly addictive. With the issue still at large, it’s important to look back on the origins of this health crisis and find out what makes opioids so addictive.

Brief history

The National Institute on Drug Abuse traces back the origins of the crisis to the 1990s, when pharmaceutical companies began to endorse the use of prescription opioid pain killers. As hospitals and medical professionals were assured that there were no major side effects from these drugs, prescription orders rose.

In this chart, the CDC outlines three distinct waves of opioid overdoses throughout the country. The first wave of deaths came around 1999, a few years after prescriptions had become widespread. The second wave started around 2010 due to heavy use of heroin. Then in 2013, a third wave began as a result of widespread use of illicitly manufactured fentanyl.

Hospitals, as well as small and large drug rehabilitation facilities, started overflowing with patients struggling to manage opioid addiction.

Woman overdose and had a pills in her hand

Why is it so addictive?

Opioid drugs bind themselves into the human body’s opioid receptors, which are responsible for several body functions such as moods, blood pressure, digestion, and even breathing. By binding to these receptors, the body starts releasing dopamine, which triggers feelings of pleasure and relief, offering a respite from whatever pain that is being felt.

But repeated exposure to opioids significantly alters brain functions to the point that it causes people to become increasingly dependent on the use of these drugs. That’s according to a published study on opioid use, The Neurobiology of Opioid Dependence: Implications for Treatment.

The authors state that as the brain becomes more accustomed to dosages, it starts to function normally when the opioids are present and abnormally when they are absent. Over time, brain cells with opioid receptors become less responsive to the drugs. As a result, users begin increasing the dosage amount to lethal levels just to achieve the same high experienced during initial exposure.

What is the government doing?

To address the growing opioid problem in collaboration with several pharmaceutical companies, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has been crafting policies around five major priorities:

  • Improving access to treatment and recovery services
  • Strengthening our understanding of the epidemic through better public health surveillance
  • Advancing better practices for pain management
  • Providing support for cutting-edge research on pain and addiction
  • Promoting use of overdose-reversing drugs

If you or anyone you know are suffering from opioid misuse and dependency, please contact the proper health authorities. The HHS has a free national helpline that you may contact by phone via 800-662-4357.


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