According to statistics gathered by the Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project, the national rate for hospital stays related to opioid use in the U.S. was 296.9 for every 100,000 people in 2016. And according to the Centers for Disease Control, an average of 130 Americans die every day from an opioid overdose.
To some extent, solving the opioid epidemic will rely on determining where the abuse starts — but answering that depends on what you mean by “where.”
For instance, opioid abuse is largely a non-metropolitan problem, with patients in rural areas being 87 percent more likely to receive a prescription for opioids from their physician.
On the other hand, many of those overdoses are caused by the use of heroin or illegally obtained prescription drugs bought on the street. In a large number of cases, however, the pattern of abuse starts with a legitimate prescription in a medical setting.
In a study of over one million surgical patients who had never before used opioids, 56 percent of them were treated with opioids following surgery. The study also indicated that patients who received a prescription refill for opioids were 44 percent more likely to develop a pattern of abuse.
What you should know before surgery
For both patients and physicians, the potential for opioid abuse should be considered an added risk of surgery, and an important topic of pre- and postoperative discussion. Just five days of opioid use is enough to dramatically raise the likelihood that someone will become an abuser.
In other words, even taking opioids exactly as prescribed can be a pathway to dependency.
Every surgery carries with it intrinsic risks. Error on the part of the medical staff; postoperative infection; unexpected reaction to an anesthetic — these can occur with even the most basic of operations.
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When doctors discuss these risks with their patients, opioid dependency should be a part of the conversation, as well (at least in any case that presents a chance of the patient being prescribed an opioid medication). The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) even offers general guidelines for doctors who prescribe opioids for pain management. These include putting into place screening procedures and assessments for addiction risks.
As a patient, simply being aware of the potential for opioids to lead to abuse and dependency goes a long way. Left ignorant to the facts, it might be easy or tempting to continue taking opioids unnecessarily, even when less dangerous drugs could take their place.
Not everyone enjoys being medicated; but for many, opioids are an extremely effective pain reliever — and no one wants to suffer. However, doctors must do their part in helping patients stay vigilant in the knowledge that no matter the amount of physical discomfort, the pain of opioid addiction can be just as devastating.