Opioid Epidemic: The Science Behind the Deadly Addiction

Biyon Wanninayake ‘23

The Opioid Epidemic is a major problem faced in today’s world. In 2017, the United States Department of Health and Human Services declared it as a public health emergency.

The Opioid Epidemic refers to when addictive opioid drugs become overused and misused, leading to great medical and economic consequences. The Opioid Epidemic began with the increased prescriptions of opioids in the 1990’s, due to pharmaceutical companies not disclosing the addictive nature of these drugs. There are a variety of prescription opioids such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, and hydromorphone (referred to as perks and oxys). There is a dangerous trend where people who become addicted to prescription opioids began using illegal opioids like heroin, due to cheaper costs.

In 2017 alone, more than 47,000 Americans died due to opioid overdose, while an estimated 1.7 million Americans suffered from disorders related to prescription opioid pain relievers. Acts like these also lead to an “economic burden,” where the misuse of prescription opioids costs about $78.5 billion dollars per year. By understanding the science behind the opioid addiction and its consequences, we can work towards preventing overdoses and related deaths.

Opioids are a class of drugs used to relieve persistent and severe pain, commonly prescribed for chronic headaches and backaches, patients recovering from surgery/dental procedures, and by adults and children who have gotten injured playing a sport. Opioids work by attaching themselves onto proteins called opioid receptors on nerve cells in the brain, spinal cord and digestive track, consequently blocking pain messages sent throughout the body.

Although opioids are used to relieve pain, they also make people feel pleasure or euphoria, the high from drugs. The science behind this isn’t fully understood, but it’s believed to be the reason of why opioids are so addictive. Opioids can be deadly because they can impact important brain areas that are necessary for life-sustaining functions, such as the brain stem, which controls critical functions like heart rate, sleeping, and breathing. Therefore, an overdose of opioids can have life-threatening consequences, such as shallow breathing, slowed heart rate, and loss of consciousness, which all may lead to death. 

In response to the opioid epidemic, the U.S Department of Health and Human Services are taking action in attempting to prevent overdoses and deaths. They are focusing on improving access to treatment and recovery services, promoting the use of overdose-reversing drugs, advancing better practices for pain management, and providing support for research on pain and addiction. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is also aiding in solving the opioid crisis by discovering new ways to prevent opioid misuse, treat opioid use disorders, and efficient ways to manage pain. The NIH frequently meet with pharmaceutical companies to discuss safe and non-addictive ways to treat chronic pain and new medications to treat opioid use disorders.