Abuse of opiates like morphine, codeine and the growing class of prescription drugs that are opiate based, is exploding across the United States. Far from being an exclusive problem limited to one age group or element of society, it affects people of all ages, in all communities. In 2006, over 17 million people over the age of 60 had abused prescription drugs of some sort, whether knowingly or not. Opiate abuse is both pervasive in American society and difficult to treat. Modern opiates are highly addictive and used for everything from stress relief to pain medication. The modern medicine cabinet, for some, has proven as deadly as any street corner drug dealer.
Admissions to drug treatment centers for opiate abuse has skyrocketed since 1997, from around 16,000 to over 90,000. By contrast, admissions for heroin, once the only major opiate of concern, rose from 251,000 to 337,000. “Opiates other than heroin” has become a standard reporting category.
Many people who become trapped in a cycle of opiate abuse likely did not realize the dangers in their prescription medications. Others deliberately abuse drugs like Oxycontin, Xanax, and Percocet for their euphoric effect, inhaling, smoking, and injecting them in ways similar to heroin or cocaine. Abuse of opiates leads to increasing dependency as the drug chemically alters the way the brain functions and the body develops a tolerance. Drugs taken safely in small dosages, for short periods of time, become traps as users take higher and higher doses and exceed the safe time limit, which is usually quite short, 10-30 days.
While an opiate addiction can strike anyone at any time, people at particular risk are those who deliberately abuse heroin or prescription drugs, generally young people between 17 and 34, and the elderly, who are often prescribed painkillers for a variety of ailments. People with high-stress jobs also run the risk of addiction to opiates prescribed for anxiety, panic attacks, insomnia, and other stress-related conditions.
Signs of opiate abuse include:
In addition, those who suspect a loved one may be abusing opiates should look for redness and raw nostrils from sniffing heroin, or needle marks on the inner arms or other parts of the body. Treatment for an opiate addiction should be undertaken as soon as it is identified. The longer it goes untreated, the greater the chance of overdose and death. The Michael Jackson story is a case study in the depressive effect of high doses of opiates on the respiratory and cardiac systems.
Current treatment methodologies for opiate addiction include managing withdrawal symptoms and cravings through the use of methadone, buprenorphine, or naltrexone. This is accompanied by counseling and behavior modification, and involves several months of inpatient or outpatient treatment through a substance abuse treatment center. Currently there are over 13,000 such facilities in the United States alone. Not all are certified for buprenorphine, but most can evaluate and refer patients to the proper opiate treatment program in their area.