The Opioid Epidemic: America’s Deadly Addiction

From the Lecture Series: The Opioid Epidemic — America's Deadly Addiction

By Thad Polk, Ph.D., University of Michigan

Due to the recent opioid epidemic, the number of overdose deaths in the United States averages about 175 per day. This means that drug overdoses are now the single most common cause of death for Americans under the age of 50. What are the causes behind this devastating crisis?

Spilled Prescription Pills Over American Flag
(Image: Andrey_Popov/Shutterstock)

Professor Thad Polk attributes one of the causes of the epidemic to an increase in pharmaceutical companies and doctors advocating their use for chronic pain in the 1990s. In The Opioid Epidemic: America’s Deadly Addiction, we join award-winning professor of psychology to explore these shocking numbers as he delves into how opioids affect our brains, why they are so addictive, and what we can do to counter this crisis.

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Some Surprising Stats About the Opioid Epidemic:

  • In 2012 Doctors prescribed enough opioid prescriptions for every adult to have their own supply for an entire month.
  • In 2016, 12 states had recorded more prescriptions for painkillers than there were people.
  • 25% of people who are prescribed an opioid drug end up misusing it.
  • Over 2 million Americans are estimated to be addicted to opioids.
  • The term “gateway drug” is extremely relevant when it comes to opioids. 80% of heroin addicts turned to it after previously misusing a prescription painkiller.

Common Questions About the Opioid Epidemic

Q: What is the opioid epidemic?

Pharmaceutical companies greatly over-prescribed opioids as painkillers over the 1990s, causing many people to becoming addicted. In 2017, the Department of Health and Human Services created a plan to address the epidemic. In 2016, over 42,000 people died from opioid overdoses.

Q: Why are opioids considered a gateway drug?

When people use up their prescription painkillers before their prescription expires, they often turn to street drugs such as heroin to satisfy their addiction.

Q: What is the Department of Health and Human Services doing to address the opioid epidemic?

To address the issue of opioid addiction, the HSS is expanding addiction treatment services, increasing access to drugs such as naloxone which can reverse overdoses, monitoring public health trends in order to predict potential overdoses, and researching effect pain management solutions that do not involve opioids.

Q: Why does opioid abuse occur?

Opioid abuse occurs because while opioids offer pain relief, they also lead to euphoria and the person may continue taking them in order to recreate the pleasurable sensations. Additionally, opioids can be physically addictive and discontinuing use of the drug can lead to withdrawal symptoms such as nausea, insomnia, and bodily aches and pains.

This article was updated on 8/18/2019

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