Thursday 2 February 2023
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U of R Researchers Find Opioid Crisis Is Worse than We Thought

News stories today like to focus on celebrities, politics, events that cause media frenzy. Less commonly reported on, however, are the solutions for America’s growing drug problem.

In fact, in a study done by the Berkeley Media Studies Group, media research found that opioid addiction is both a public health issue as well as a criminal justice issue.

This leaves the community with questions such as, how do we solve the opioid crisis through a medical point of view? What resources or advice can public health officials give on the status of the opioid epidemic? Instead of framing both the crisis and the solution, news coverage chooses to only reiterate the fact that opioid addiction and overdose is a problem for the community, but provides no answers.

Recent research by the University of Rochester found that the opioid epidemic is much worse than originally thought. The study, published in the University’s journal “Addiction,” found that the number of opioid-related deaths could be 28% higher than reported. These deaths, which are due to drug overdoses of unidentified drugs, most likely opioids, were not classified properly and thus are part of a collection of incomplete death records.

The same study found that nearly 72% of unclassified drug overdoses between 1999 and 2016 involved the opiate heroin, the highly deadly opioid fentanyl, and other prescription painkillers. This discrepancy is largely concentrated in states such as Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania. With new death statistics taken properly into account, all of these states had their opioid-related death rates more than double. In Pennsylvania, for instance, the number of deaths increased in number so dramatically that they are now only third — behind California and Florida — for highest number of opioid-related deaths, making it the state with the sixth-highest overdose death rate per capita in 2016.

How to Tackle the Opioid Health Crisis

Solutions and resources for addiction are far and few between for those with lower income. By far, the best solution for those already using alcohol, opioids, opiates, and other illicit substances is sobriety through mental health, drug counseling, and adequate medical health care resources. This can also include medication-assisted treatment with drugs such as methodone to ease a user into sobriety. However, receiving proper resources for addiction might be an issue for those who are lower-income. In fact, a study done by the CDC showed that rates of overdose deaths of opioid prescription drugs, such as those containing oxycodone and hydrocodone, and pain relievers containing hydromorphone were highest among lower-income populations since 2011.

It isn’t just those overdosing from opioids that are in danger, however. A study done by the NHTSA in 2006 found that drugs other than alcohol, including marijuana and cocaine, are involved in approximately 18% of motor vehicle deaths. Those who are lower-income face possible addiction, as they do not have adequate education on the dangers of prescription abuse, share medication, and leave teens susceptible to begin using.

Another reason those of lower-income can become addicted to opioids is through using it as a getaway from the poverty, stress, and mental health issues that come with it.

Besides belonging to a low-income wage group, another risk factor for those using opiates and opioids is previous use of painkillers. In fact, a study done by the National Institute on Drug Abuse found that gathering data from 2002 to 2012, the incidence of heroin use was 19 times higher among those who used pain relievers for nonmedical purposes than among those who did not. Because of this, having resources for those that find themselves turning to opiates such as heroin in order to treat pain and avoid withdrawal symptoms is essential. In addition, having education and prevention programs that teach people the dangers of turning to opiates and opioids for pain relief is also crucial.

Keeping Up with Sobriety

Even after identifying the health crisis of opioids, giving resources to those most at-risk for addiction is keeping sober. The incidence of relapse among opiate and opioid addicts is staggeringly high and is considered a normal part of recovery due to the devastating effects of withdrawal. Withdrawal can include feelings of nausea, fever, shivers, agitation, anxiety, diarrhea, and extreme muscle aches, just to name a few.

Because of the severe symptoms that accompany opioid withdrawal, as opposed to withdrawal from other drugs, opioid addicts can have severe negative health consequences. Thus, it’s important to discuss a solid recovery plan with both a medical and mental health care professional in order to minimize health risks and risks of relapse.

For friends and families of loved ones, and even for counselors, routine drug testing can be an accurate way of knowing if a loved one has fallen back to using. Relapses are common, but should not discourage a user from continuing their sobriety journey. In fact, stricter laws are now in place to ensure an addict’s health status is not shared with others, a fear that can cause some addicts who use in private to not seek help. For example, in 2009, HIPAA extended its coverage for “covered entities,” that is, those that cannot share information of a patient, through the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act (HITECH). This includes all business associates with access to health information, and ensures someone seeking help for their addiction is protected among this group as well.

Outlook for Opioid Addicts

Though the opioid crisis is growing there are still health resources and laws in place that can help. More importantly, spreading awareness of this crisis can be the difference between an addict seeking help or not. The University of Rochester’s findings have opened the doors for an important new conversation about drug information and health.