When a statistic showed the number of opioid prescriptions increased from 76 million in 1991 to 219 million in 2011, Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse at the National Institutes of Health, asked the seminal questions: “Do we really have this number of people requiring these prescriptions? Have we increased four times in terms of chronic pain? That’s clearly not the case.”
Dr. Ileana Arias, principal deputy director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said “opioid overdose death rates have risen in lock step with sales,” reports Laura Ungar for The Courier-Journal. “In 2010, enough prescription painkillers were prescribed to medicate every American adult around the clock for a month.”
These were more troubling statistics discussed at the National Rx Drug Abuse Summit, held in Orlando, Fla., and organized by Eastern Kentucky’s Operation UNITE. “This is an epidemic. And at CDC, we do not use the word epidemic very lightly,” Arias said.
Volkow pointed out opioids are very addictive, since they raise dopamine levels in the brain, which are triggered when people do pleasurable activities, such as eating or sex. Heroin and the painkiller OxyContin are nearly identical in their chemical structure, she said. OxyContin blocks pain but increases dopamine. “You are decreasing pain, but you are activating a reward,” she said.
Treatment is one solution, but “we don’t have sufficient treatments. We are far behind other conditions,” such as cancer or HIV, Volkow said.
More research is needed to “develop better pain medications that are as effective as opioids that are not addictive,” she added. Doctors also need to be aware of over-prescribing, with Arias recounting a story in which she was prescribed two-weeks worth of Demerol after she had her wisdom teeth taken out — an excessive amount, in her view.
U.S. Rep. Harold “Hal” Rogers of Kentucky’s 5th District said he wasn’t surprised. “Time and again, we’ve heard that doctors have prescribed, say, two weeks of medication when only a few days are necessary,” he said. “Then the rest go in a medicine cabinet for (others) to pilfer.” (Read more)