Painkillers are supposed to be our friends – they exist to alleviate pain, make us feel better, and help us get through the day with fewer complaints and less inefficiencies. Even the name makes them feel like defenders of justice and slayers of all things wrong in this world – after all, who wants pain?
But pain serves a purpose, and prescription painkillers – which can completely numb you to pain – take a terrible toll on many Americans. While drugs like acetaminophen and most non-steroidal anti-inflammatories can help you get through the day just fine, prescription painkillers are prescription-only for a simple reason: in the wrong amounts, and in the wrong hands, they can be extremely dangerous. And it just so happens that they often land in the wrong hands, and in large doses.
All prescription painkillers are opioids: opium-derivates, either natural or synthetic. Understanding what opioids do and how they work can give you insight into why they’re at the helm of our country’s growing overdose statistics.
What Are Opioids?
At some point, many centuries ago, poppy seeds were discovered not only to make for excellent moon cakes, but to contain a powerful psychoactive essence dubbed opium. Opium made the user feel less pain and feel much happier – not only did your physical troubles fade away, but it slowed your breathing and made life more pleasant. Yet opium was also addictive – and many got to a point in life where they couldn’t live without it and would go through extreme measures to obtain more of it.
While opium faded away from the West due to its Eastern roots, it was reintroduced as a powerful analgesic, the active ingredient in a painkilling tincture named laudanum. In the 19th century, a German chemist discovered morphine, a purified form of opium, named after the Greek god of dreams, Morpheus. It became the common answer to most problems of the mind, from anxiety to insomnia to pain and respiratory issues. The craze around morphine grew to the point that it became an active ingredient in children’s “soothing” medicine, and with the popularity of morphine came a greater understanding of the concept of addiction.
Nearly 100 years later, towards the turn of the century, another German chemist discovered heroin, an even more powerful form of morphine, advertised as a “non-addictive alternative” at first.
Today, both morphine and heroin are illegal substances meant to be unobtainable outside of medical purposes, and many other opioid derivatives exist, including synthetic opioids like fentanyl and carfentanil, both of which are magnitudes more powerful than their natural counterparts, and far more dangerous to consume.
Opioids work by binding to the brain through the bloodstream, and can be introduced into the body through inhalation, ingestion, or injection. Once in the brain, they bind to the brain cells’ opioid receptors, inducing an analgesic, euphoric effect, coupled with a slowed respiratory system.
Due to the extreme effects opioids have on the mind and brain, they are also prone to misuse and chemical dependency, wherein using opioids regularly and then stopping can lead to painful flu-like withdrawal symptoms. Sometimes, it’s also possible to build up a tolerance to opioids through continued use, leading to the urge to increase the dosage, until the heart stops or the user’s breathing stops, leading to death.
Painkillers Are A Nationwide Crisis
In the 90s, America’s fight against pain led to the official decision to heavily endorse prescription painkillers as a solution against the growing problem of chronic pain in the country. This decision was not meant to cause harm, nor did it encourage excessive prescription – but coupled with the advertising and profiteering at the time, it became the perfect storm for a massive influx in opioid prescriptions, inevitably leading to many pills out on the street, and a rise in addiction.
Heroin, trafficked in through other parts of the world and brewed at home, became a growing problem as well, and many people graduated from pills to black tar, while others began starting their addiction on illegal and often dangerous heroin, mixed with other drugs, unrelated products such as baby formula, and fentanyl, a much more powerful form of heroin that has led to a massive increase in overdoses over the past few years.
Treating The Addiction
Opioid addiction, like alcoholism and any other form of drug addiction, requires a lot of time and a strict program to overcome. There is no single program that can be successfully appropriated by all individuals – rather, addiction treatment is an individual matter, and each case needs a unique plan suited to their circumstances.
Addiction treatment often involves individual and group therapy, from art therapy to exercise and face-to-face conversation.
Of course, medical care is also a part of the solution. Medically-assisted treatment can be seen as detrimental for some patients, but for many others, it could save their lives and give them the gradual come down they need to avoid relapse, and ultimately defeat the addiction. Drugs like methadone have for years been criticized for being nothing more than simple alternatives to heroin and prescription painkillers, but the truth is that many Americans are successfully off their opioids thanks to treatments spearheaded by the diligent use of this drug.
There’s no denying that methadone dependence does exist and can occur. But to deny its usefulness may be doing much more harm than good. Ultimately, however, the goal is not to rely on any drugs whatsoever and live a life as free from medication as humanly possible.
Sometimes, sending someone into rehab or giving them an intervention is not possible – because they’re in a state of extreme physical duress. Opioid overdoses happen thousands of times a year, and cause tens of thousands of deaths – but many of those lives can be saved and given a second chance through the use of opioid antagonists.
Save A Life
Naloxone and other opioid antagonists present a way to save a life during an overdose, as the administration of naloxone can help the body effectively respond to opioids by completely blocking their effects. Using naloxone can quickly restore a person’s breathing, without needing the extensive training of a nurse or a professional first responder.
Naloxone kits should always be kept on-hand if you are personally addicted to opioids or know someone who is. In the case of a severe relapse or an overdose, naloxone can be used to completely block the effects of the drugs. It is not addictive, and could save the lives of thousands of Americans, and give them the chance they need to live a healthier, longer, sober life by taking the steps towards getting away from their drug use.
The fight against addiction is a long one for any individual, and the fight against addiction as a society may be even longer. The first and most important lesson is to separate the addiction from the individual and give many the much-needed time and love to get better and find themselves on the other end of this dark and terrible tunnel.