An opioid overdose epidemic runs rampant in the United States. Astonishingly, even after surviving an opioid overdose, people still return to opioid use in the future. Ars Technica reports that 91% of patients who survive opioid overdose are prescribed more opioids:
“Examining a national database of health insurance claims, researchers found that 91 percent of patients who suffered a nonfatal overdose of prescription opioid painkillers continued getting prescriptions for opioids following the overdose.”
Overdose after Overdose
Even more troubling than an initial overdose is that people who survive an overdose may overdose again. Ars Technica continues:
“And, the researchers found, overdose survivors who kept taking high dosages of an opioid—including morphine, oxycodone, and hydrocodone—were twice as likely to have another overdose within two years.”
Developing Tolerance and Dependence
Why are people taking more opioids, even after an overdose, and what makes it so hard to stop opioids? The more opioids a person takes over a prolonged period of time, the greater the risk of building a tolerance to the drug. Tolerance is when the body adapts to opioids, causing the opioids to have a reduced drug effect. Once a person builds a tolerance, he or she needs to take increasingly large doses of the opioids just to feel normal.
Along the way, the body develops a physical dependence on opioids. A physical dependence occurs when a person develops withdrawal symptoms after discontinuing opioid use. These symptoms may include sweating, nausea, or irritability. This physical dependence causes people to continue to take opioids so they don’t suffer these withdrawal symptoms. This opioid dependency is what makes it so hard to quit using the drugs.
Unfortunately, some opioid-dependent individuals may end up taking too much, thus leading to overdose.
Preventing Opioid Overdose in Prior Overdose Survivors
The statistics provide insight into the opioid overdose epidemic. However, it is also important to determine what we can do to prevent such occurrences in the first place.
Lead author Marc LaRochelle of Boston Medical Center said that “[t]he intent of this study is not to point fingers but rather to use the results to motivate physicians, policymakers and researchers to improve how we identify and treat patients at risk of opioid-related harms before they occur.”
What do you think needs to be done to prevent overdose? What can help identify and treat patients with a physical dependence on opioids?