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Navigation: What Are Opioids?, The Overprescription of Opioids, The Dangers of Substance Abuse, The Complexity of the Opioid Crisis, The Role of Doctors in the Fight Against Drug Addiction, Addiction as a Public Health Issue, Treatment for Drug Abuse and Addiction

In the ongoing battle against the opioid crisis, one question continues to linger in the public consciousness: do doctors inadvertently turn their patients into drug addicts?

It’s safe to say this is a contentious issue that has something to do with the complex relationship between medicine, pain management, and addiction. The truth is that the answer isn’t black and white. Exploring the various factors at play can shed light on this pressing concern.

At the heart of this debate lies the practice of prescribing opioid painkillers.

Opioids are highly effective in managing acute pain. However, their potent nature also poses significant risks, particularly when used over extended periods or in high doses. Prolonged opioid use can lead to tolerance, dependence, and, in some cases, addiction.

Unfortunately, the problem of overprescribing medication is still rampant in the US. In fact, prescription drug overdoses are now among the leading causes of death in the country. [1]

Here we will tackle this complicated topic, covering the dangers of overprescription and substance abuse. Let’s take a closer look.

What Are Opioids?

Before we dive into the problem of overprescribing opioids, we first need to talk about what opioids are. Opioids are a class of drugs that include both legal prescription pain relievers like oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine, and illegal drugs like heroin. [2]

These substances are either derived from the opium poppy plant or synthesized in laboratories to produce similar effects.

Opioids work by binding to specific receptors in the brain and body to reduce the perception of pain and induce feelings of euphoria. This is why they are highly effective when it comes to managing pain. That said, they also carry a high risk of dependence, addiction, and overdose.

These drugs are typically prescribed for moderate to severe pain management. Patients may be given opioids after surgery, injury, or for chronic conditions like cancer. In some cases, they are also used to manage pain associated with terminal illnesses. [2]

Due to their addictive nature, doctors are advised to prescribe them cautiously and for short durations whenever possible. In recent years, there has been growing concern over the widespread misuse and addiction to opioids, leading to efforts to promote safer prescribing practices.

The Overprescription of Opioids

Critics argue that overprescribing by physicians has fueled the rise of opioid addiction. They point to instances where patients received opioids for conditions that might have been effectively managed with alternative treatments or lower-risk medications.

There’s also the fact that some physicians may underestimate the addictive potential of opioids. In some cases, doctors simply fail to monitor their patients adequately for signs of misuse.

Even if a drug is initially prescribed for a legitimate condition, patients are still at risk of developing tolerance, dependence, and addiction due to the effects of opioids.

Therefore, the overprescription of opioids is a significant public health crisis. Initially intended for short-term pain management, opioids have been excessively prescribed for chronic pain conditions, leading to widespread misuse and addiction.

This complex issue did not just come out of nowhere one day. There are plenty of factors that contributed to this problem. For example, one of the primary reasons behind the overprescription of opioids is the aggressive marketing tactics employed by pharmaceutical companies. In their desire to sell more opioids, they downplayed the risks of addiction while exaggerating the benefits.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, pharmaceutical companies reassured healthcare providers that patients would not become addicted to prescription opioids, leading to a surge in their prescription rates.

Healthcare providers began to prescribe opioids as a quick solution to manage pain, without exploring alternative, less addictive treatments. This overreliance on opioids has contributed to the escalation of opioid-related overdoses and deaths, devastating families and communities across the nation.

Prescriptions for opioids increased from 76 million in 1991 to an astounding 207 million in 2013. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 4 out of 5 current heroin addicted individuals began using after abusing their prescription opioids. [1]

The Dangers of Substance Abuse

Overprescribing opioids can expose people to the dangers of substance abuse. Regardless of the type of substance taken, whether it’s a prescription opioid or an illicit street drug, the adverse effects can be just as impactful. This is why we need to talk about the risks of misusing substances like drugs and alcohol.

Here are some of the key dangers associated with substance addiction:

Physical Health Risks

Substance addiction can lead to numerous health problems, including cardiovascular issues, respiratory problems, liver damage, neurological disorders, and an increased risk of infectious diseases like HIV/AIDS and hepatitis.

People who engage in substance abuse may suffer from a weakened immune system, nausea, abdominal pain, drastic weight changes, seizures, stroke, and lung disease. Overdose is also significant risk, particularly with drugs like opioids and stimulants. [3]

Mental Health Issues

Substance addiction often coexists with mental health disorders such as depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia. Addiction can exacerbate these conditions and vice versa, leading to a vicious cycle that’s difficult to break.

Drugs often affect the brain’s reward circuit, which is why people are influenced to keep taking a substance even when they are already suffering from its adverse effects. By flooding the brain with the feel-good chemical known as dopamine, drugs can give people a euphoric sensation often described as a “high”. [3]

Social and Relationship Problems

Drug abuse not only affects the individual but also the people around them. This is why substance abuse can strain relationships with family, friends, and colleagues. [4]

Addicted individuals may become isolated or engage in behaviors that harm those around them. They may change their social circles, opting to hang out with those who enable their addictive behaviors. In some cases, they will just choose to be alone. This can lead to broken families, lost friendships, and difficulty maintaining employment.

Financial Hardship

Maintaining an addiction can be expensive, often leading people to financial ruin. When they go from prescription drugs to illicit substances, they may start spending all their money on those drugs. Some people even begin to neglect basic needs such as food, shelter, and healthcare.

Plus, because of the effects of drugs on cognitive function, addicted individuals may struggle to hold down a job. Losing their income will only exacerbate their financial hardships as they struggle to support both their basic needs and their addictive habits. Some even resort to borrowing or stealing money from loved ones.

This financial strain can have long-term consequences and may lead to homelessness or criminal activity to support the addiction.

Legal Issues

Substance addiction often leads to legal problems, including arrests for possession, distribution, or driving under the influence. Legal consequences can range from fines and probation to imprisonment, which further exacerbates the person’s difficulties in overcoming addiction.

Risk of Accidents and Injuries

Health problems aren’t the only physical concerns when it comes to substance abuse and addiction.

Impaired judgment and motor skills caused by substance use can increase the likelihood of accidents and injuries. This includes accidents related to driving, operating machinery, or engaging in risky behaviors while under the influence.

When a person drives under the influence of drugs and alcohol, they are not only putting their own lives at risk but also the people they are sharing the road with.

Tolerance and Dependence

As substance abuse continues, individuals may develop tolerance to the substance. Tolerance is when a person begins to require larger doses just to achieve the same effects.

Eventually, this can also lead to physical dependence, where the body requires the substance just to function normally. If they stop or reduce their intake, they may suffer from life-threatening withdrawal symptoms. [5]

Risk of Overdose and Death

We mentioned this earlier, but one of the most dangerous consequences of drug abuse is the risk of overdose, which can be fatal in some cases.

One of the most significant dangers of substance addiction is the risk of overdose, which can result in coma or death. This risk is particularly high with opioids, benzodiazepines, and other central nervous system depressants.

With all of these potential dangers, we can say that substance addiction is a complex problem that requires comprehensive solutions. Early intervention, access to treatment, and support from family and community are essential in combating addiction and reducing its harmful effects.

The Complexity of the Opioid Crisis

Despite the role doctors play in the overprescription of opioids, the situation is a lot more nuanced than that. Many healthcare professionals emphasize the importance of individualized patient care and the need to alleviate suffering.

For some patients, particularly those with chronic pain, opioids may be a necessary component of their treatment regimen. Without adequate pain relief, these people may experience a diminished quality of life or even disability.

Physicians also argue that they are not solely responsible for the opioid crisis. Factors like pharmaceutical marketing practices, patient demand for quick fixes, and other socioeconomic factors contribute to the widespread use and misuse of opioids. Blaming doctors alone oversimplifies a multifaceted issue.

Nevertheless, healthcare providers acknowledge the need for greater caution when prescribing opioids. In recent years, there has been a concerted effort to implement stricter prescribing guidelines while also improving physician education on pain management alternatives.

Additionally, increased use of prescription drug monitoring programs aims to identify and prevent potential cases of overprescribing or doctor shopping.

The Role of Doctors in the Fight Against Drug Addiction

Doctors may have had a hand in the overprescription of opioids, but they also play a crucial role in the fight against drug addiction through various avenues of intervention and support.

For starters, they are often the frontline healthcare professionals who encounter patients struggling with addiction in clinical settings. Doctors are trained to recognize signs and symptoms of substance abuse disorders. This enables them to initiate conversations, provide medical assessments, and offer appropriate interventions.

This early identification and intervention can significantly impact the trajectory of addiction by guiding people towards treatment and support services.

Doctors also play an important role in prescribing medications during addiction treatment. They can give patients methadone or buprenorphine for opioid dependence in order to reduce cravings and help manage withdrawal symptoms.

Sometimes the symptoms of withdrawal can be fatal and life-threatening. This is why the support of physicians is needed. They can administer these medications and monitor possible side effects as patients go through this difficult stage of recovery. [6]

They can also provide essential medical monitoring and guidance throughout the treatment process, ensuring that patients receive comprehensive care tailored to their needs. Ultimately, doctors are there to support long-term recovery for addicted individuals.

Addiction as a Public Health Issue

At the end of the day, addiction is a public health issue that affects individuals, families, and entire communities.

The toll of addiction extends beyond the immediate health effects to encompass social, economic, and psychological aspects. From strained relationships and financial hardships to increased rates of crime and homelessness, addiction influences various aspects of society. [7]

Substance abuse even harms the economy. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), drug addiction costs the US $232 billion in health care costs and $740 billion overall. [7]

Therefore, a comprehensive public health response is necessary in order to deal with this problem. It all starts with recognizing addiction as a public health issue and making treatment options more accessible to those who need them.

Public health initiatives aimed at addiction must focus on raising awareness, reducing stigma, and providing accessible resources for prevention and treatment.

By shifting the focus from punitive measures to holistic care, communities can better support those affected by addiction and reduce its impact.

Addressing other social problems like poverty, unemployment, lack of education, and overprescription will cause a ripple effect that will help communities minimize the effects of substance abuse and addiction.

Treatment for Drug Abuse and Addiction

 For those who are struggling with addiction, whether it’s prescription drug addiction, illicit drug addiction, or alcohol use disorder (AUD), there are plenty of treatment options available out there.

Treatment typically involves a combination of therapeutic interventions, medical support, and lifestyle changes. Here are some common approaches:

Detoxification: The first step of drug addiction treatment is often detoxification, where the body is allowed to metabolize any remaining drugs and rid itself of their toxic influence. The patient’s drug intake is gradually lowered while their condition is monitored by medical professionals. This can involve medical supervision to manage withdrawal symptoms and cravings safely. [8]

Behavioral Therapies: Because the effects of addiction are not just physical, therapies are also important. Various types of behavioral therapies can help addicted individuals recognize and modify their thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors related to drug use.

These programs help them address the root causes of addictive behavior while learning healthy coping mechanisms and building life skills. Behavioral therapies are evidence-based programs that help patients regain and maintain their sobriety. Examples include Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Motivational Interviewing (MI), and Contingency Management (CM). [8]

Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT): Some addictions, such as opioids and alcohol, have medications that can help reduce cravings and withdrawal symptoms, making it easier for patients to engage in treatment. Examples include methadone, buprenorphine, naltrexone, and disulfiram.

Support Groups: Participation in support groups such as Narcotics Anonymous (NA) or Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) can provide recovering individuals with peer support, encouragement, and accountability as they navigate recovery.

Family Therapy: Involving family members in the treatment process can help repair relationships, address enabling behaviors, and provide a supportive environment for recovery. [8]

Holistic Approaches: Complementary therapies such as yoga, mindfulness meditation, art therapy, and acupuncture can help patients manage stress, improve their mental well-being, and find alternative ways to cope with their cravings and triggers.

Aftercare Planning: Developing a comprehensive aftercare plan is crucial for maintaining sobriety after completing formal treatment. This may include ongoing therapy, support group participation, vocational training, sober living arrangements, and strategies for preventing relapse.

Remember that relapse is just another obstacle in the road to recovery and should not discourage you from pursuing lasting sobriety.

Dual Diagnosis Treatment: Many people struggling with addiction also have co-occurring mental health disorders. Integrated treatment that addresses both substance abuse and mental health issues simultaneously is essential for long-term recovery.

Recovery from addiction is a lifelong process, and ongoing support from healthcare professionals, support groups, family, and friends is crucial for maintaining sobriety and preventing relapse.

It’s important for treatment to be tailored to the person’s specific needs and circumstances. After all, addiction affects everyone differently. It is also important for patients to be actively engaged in their recovery process.

Successful treatment often requires a combination of these approaches and may involve multiple attempts before achieving long-term sobriety.

Ultimately, the question of whether doctors turn their patients into drug addicts is more nuanced than a simple yes or no. While there are instances of inappropriate prescribing and unintended consequences, it’s essential to recognize the broader context in which this issue arises.

If you or someone you love is struggling with a substance use disorder, you need to look for a rehab near you today. This will help you learn more about the available treatments. Get started on the road to long-lasting sobriety today.

 

Sources:

[1]: https://internationaljournalofresearch.com/2020/06/27/do-doctors-turn-their-patients-into-drug-addicts/

[2]: https://www.asahq.org/madeforthismoment/pain-management/opioid-treatment/what-are-opioids/

[3]: https://www.gatewayfoundation.org/about-gateway-foundation/faqs/effects-of-drug-abuse/

[4]: https://www.justthinktwice.gov/social-consequences-using-drugs

[5]: https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/nursing-and-health-professions/drug-dependence

[6]: https://www.docplexus.com/posts/physician-s-role-in-the-treatment-and-prevention-of-drug-addiction

[7]: https://www.apha.org/topics-and-issues/substance-misuse

[8]: https://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugs-brains-behavior-science-addiction/treatment-recovery

 

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Fel Clinical Director of Content
Felisa Laboro has been working with addiction and substance abuse businesses since early 2014. She has authored and published over 1,000 articles in the space. As a result of her work, over 1,500 people have been able to find treatment. She is passionate about helping people break free from alcohol or drug addiction and living a healthy life.

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