Identifying Causes of Prescription Opioid Abuse

June 26, 2024

Explore the root causes of prescription opioid abuse and discover strategies for intervention and recovery.

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The Opioid Crisis

The opioid crisis has emerged as a significant public health concern, primarily driven by an increase in prescription opioid abuse. This crisis is characterized by addiction, overprescription, and insufficient primary prevention The Lancet.

Impact of Prescription Opioid Abuse

Prescription opioid abuse has widespread and often devastating impacts on individuals, families, and communities. The majority of persons with opioid addiction started with prescribed painkillers, even though heroin and illicitly manufactured fentanyl contribute to an increasing proportion of opioid-involved overdoses NCBI. The consequences of this abuse extend beyond the health and well-being of the individuals affected, impacting societal structures, healthcare systems, and the economy.

Root Causes of Prescription Opioid Abuse

Prescription opioid abuse has its roots in a complex interplay of factors. Overprescribing opiates and opioids, lack of education and opportunity, and being unmarried or divorced were identified as contributing factors to dependence on opioids NCBI. Pharmaceutical companies, pharmacies, and doctors all share the blame for the opioid crisis due to the overprescription of opioids, which led to a fourfold increase in deaths attributed to prescription opioids from 1999 to 2008 NCBI.

Furthermore, the opioid crisis was not caused by a pathogen but was described as a man-made plague, 20 years in the making, due to the pharmaceutical industry's promotion of aggressive opioid prescribing. False claims regarding the risks and benefits of opioids were disseminated by opioid manufacturers for the past 25 years, pointing to a dereliction of duty by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) AMA Journal of Ethics.

Understanding these causes is critical to developing effective strategies to prevent prescription opioid abuse and mitigate the devastating impacts of the opioid crisis.

Legal Ramifications

The legal consequences of the opioid crisis have been significant, with numerous lawsuits filed against opioid manufacturers and settlements that have provided crucial funding for addiction treatment.

Lawsuits Against Opioid Manufacturers

Opioid manufacturers have found themselves under legal scrutiny due to allegations that their products were defectively designed. These design flaws include a lack of safety mechanisms and inadequate warnings about addiction risks. Furthermore, these manufacturers have been accused of deliberately withholding critical information about the dangers of opioids.

In addition, the federal government, along with various states, counties, and cities, have lodged lawsuits against these manufacturers. These lawsuits focus on issues such as the oversaturation of the market with these drugs, deceptive business practices, and lax monitoring of suspicious opioid orders.

Settlements and Funding for Addiction Treatment

The litigation against opioid manufacturers has resulted in settlements that have provided much-needed funds for opioid addiction treatment. These funds have been used for law enforcement efforts and other support services for individuals with addiction. Such services include housing, employment assistance, and the distribution of naloxone, a drug used to reverse opioid overdoses.

Settlement agreements resulting from this litigation may also include commitments from companies to modify their marketing and distribution practices. These changes can lead to increased public awareness, changes in industry practices, and potentially greater regulation to address the opioid epidemic.

This section illustrates the significant legal implications of the opioid crisis, which have led to increased accountability for manufacturers and much-needed funding for addiction treatment and prevention efforts. The legal landscape continues to evolve in response to the ongoing opioid epidemic, and it remains a critical aspect of addressing the causes and impacts of prescription opioid abuse.

Healthcare Professionals' Role

Healthcare professionals, specifically family physicians, play a pivotal role in the unfolding narrative of prescription opioid abuse. Understanding their involvement is crucial in identifying potential solutions to mitigate this growing crisis.

Family Physicians and Opioid Prescriptions

Family physicians are often at the forefront of prescribing opioids, particularly to patients with chronic noncancer pain. In fact, they prescribe the greatest volume of opioids (22.9%) and number of prescriptions (31.2%) to this patient group, making them a significant target for quality improvement interventions.

However, family physicians with more years in practice (≥15 years) tend to have increased trust in therapeutic relationships and rely less on emergent guidelines, instead leaning on their clinical experience. This reliance on personal judgment rather than established guidelines can contribute to the ongoing issue of prescription opioid abuse [2].

Challenges Faced by Family Physicians

Family physicians face a multitude of challenges when it comes to managing the opioid crisis. While they aim to provide effective pain management for their patients, there is often a tension between adhering to guidelines and managing patient symptoms. This dichotomy can lead to a feeling of being caught in the middle of the opioid crisis.

Furthermore, family physicians often feel unsupported in managing chronic pain or substance use disorder within the broader health system. This lack of support can impede guideline-concordant care and effective management, further exacerbating the problem of prescription opioid abuse.

These challenges highlight the need for system-level interventions and support structures that can assist family physicians in adhering to guidelines, managing chronic pain effectively, and reducing the risk of prescription opioid abuse. Understanding the role of these healthcare professionals in the opioid crisis is a critical step in identifying the root causes of prescription opioid abuse and developing effective strategies to combat this growing issue.

Overdose Statistics

To truly grasp the gravity of prescription opioid abuse, one must look at the hard numbers. Overdose statistics provide a stark reality check on the scale and severity of the opioid crisis.

Global and US Opioid Overdose Deaths

Globally, the impact of opioid overdose is staggering. In 2019, around 125,000 people died of opioid overdose. This number contributed to about 600,000 deaths attributable to drug use globally. Alarmingly, close to 80% of these deaths were related to opioids, with around 25% caused by opioid overdose [3].

In the United States, the situation is equally dire. The country witnessed a significant rise in drug overdose deaths, with 70,630 fatalities reported in 2019. About half of these deaths involved synthetic opioids.

Location Year Opioid Overdose Deaths
Global 2019 125,000
US 2019 35,315

Rise of Synthetic Opioid-Related Deaths

The role of synthetic opioids in overdose deaths cannot be overstated. From 2013 to 2019, the age-adjusted synthetic opioid death rates in the United States increased by 1040%. The COVID-19 pandemic further exacerbated the situation, leading to a substantial increase in drug overdose deaths, primarily driven by rapid increases in overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids.

Fentanyl, a potent synthetic opioid approximately 50–100 times more potent than morphine, has been associated with a spike in deaths from opioid overdose. Drug dealers may be adding fentanyl to increase the potency of their products, such as heroin, and selling fentanyl as counterfeit tablets resembling authentic prescription medications. Users who test positive for fentanyl and its analogues may not realize they consumed the substance.

Location Year Synthetic Opioid-Related Deaths
US 2019 35,315

These figures underline the urgent need for intervention strategies, such as naloxone distribution and legislative interventions, to curb the rising tide of opioid overdose deaths. The data presented here paints a grim picture of the opioid crisis and underscores the far-reaching consequences of prescription opioid abuse.

Risk Factors and Vulnerable Populations

To delve deeper into the causes of prescription opioid abuse, it's essential to examine the risk factors and populations most susceptible to this crisis.

Socioeconomic Marginalization and Opioid Overdose

Socioeconomic marginalization (SEM) significantly contributes to opioid overdose. 34 out of 37 studies found a substantial association between at least one socioeconomic factor and overdose. These studies considered variables related to eight socioeconomic factors: criminal justice system involvement, income, employment, social support, health insurance, housing/homelessness, education, and composite measures of socio-economic status. Most found that increased SEM was associated with a higher rate or increased likelihood of the overdose outcome measured [4].

The current opioid overdose crisis has been linked to contamination of fentanyl and carfentanil in the drug supply. SEM and the vulnerability it creates is a crucial contributor to overdose for people who use opioids. Populations at elevated risk of drug-related death include people who are homeless, have been recently released from prison, are eligible for US Medicaid, are of Indigenous ancestry, grew up in a low-income household, or did not complete high school.

Influence of Education, Gender, and Community

Education level is another significant factor related to opioid overdose, with studies finding higher levels of education associated with lower rates of opioid-related fatal overdose.

Health insurance status, particularly Medicaid enrollment, was positively associated with overdose in six out of eight studies. The studies found that insurance type was linked to overdose rates, with Medicaid enrollment associated with an increased risk of overdose.

Housing status also plays a role in opioid overdose rates. Homelessness and lower housing prices were associated with higher rates of overdose in four out of eight studies that included measures of housing status/homelessness. These studies found that homelessness and lower housing prices were linked to an increased likelihood of overdose [4].

Understanding these risk factors and the populations most vulnerable to prescription opioid abuse is a crucial step in combatting the opioid crisis. Addressing these underlying socioeconomic issues can help prevent opioid abuse and overdose, ultimately breaking the chains of this devastating public health crisis.

Intervention Strategies

Stepping up the efforts to combat the growing problem of prescription opioid abuse are various intervention strategies. These include the distribution and training of naloxone, an opioid antidote, and legislative interventions that regulate the prescribing of opioids.

Naloxone Distribution and Training

Naloxone is an antidote to opioids that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose if administered in time. It is crucial in preventing deaths following opioid overdose. However, access to naloxone is generally limited to health professionals in many countries, although some countries have made it available in pharmacies without a prescription [3].

Providing naloxone to individuals likely to witness an opioid overdose, along with training on naloxone use and resuscitation, has been shown to significantly reduce the number of deaths resulting from opioid overdose. This approach is particularly relevant for people with opioid use disorders and those leaving prison, as they have high rates of opioid overdose during the first four weeks after release.

Legislative Interventions and Their Impact

States have implemented various interventions to combat prescription opioid abuse, including laws imposing binding limits on the amount of opioids prescribed for initial treatment, mandated warnings to patients before prescribing opioids, and the implementation of prescription drug monitoring programs (PDMPs) to track opioid prescriptions. These interventions aim to regulate and monitor the prescribing of opioids to prevent misuse and addiction [5].

Professional discipline systems, peer review, and quality assurance mechanisms are utilized to hold physicians accountable for inappropriate prescribing behavior related to opioids. State medical boards and peer review committees play a crucial role in investigating and enforcing behavior that deviates from accepted standards of medical practice, including inappropriate opioid prescribing.

However, legislative restrictions aimed at reducing opioid-related harms have raised concerns about limiting access to opioids for legitimate medical purposes, potentially resulting in undertreated pain for patients. The unintended consequences of these regulations highlight the complexity of balancing efforts to prevent opioid misuse while ensuring access to necessary pain management medications.

In conclusion, combating the issue of prescription opioid abuse requires a multifaceted approach that includes both medical interventions and legislative measures. By improving access to life-saving medications like naloxone and implementing laws to regulate opioid prescribing, strides can be made in reducing the impact of this public health crisis. However, it's equally crucial to ensure that these interventions do not inadvertently limit access to necessary pain management for patients who need it.







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