How Necessary Is Opioid Reform?

Zach Sevart, Staff Writer

Since the 1860s, opioids have been one of the most common treatments for pain relief and injury. Opioids are a class of drugs whose main purpose is to block out pain signals between the body and brain. Common prescribable opioids include Vicodin and Oxycontin, which treat moderate to severe pain. Users have described the effects of opioids as euphoric, which they feel provides an enjoyable experience. While there are plenty of benefits of using opioids, there are many negative side effects that go along with them. Due to their positive side effects, opioids are highly addictive. Opioid addiction took the lives of over 50,000 people in 2019, with another 1.1 million people suffering from opioid addictions, but this only accounts for the use of prescribed opioids. The use of heroin since 2002 has increased 286 percent due to its highly addictive properties and availability, which has also resulted in an increase in deaths caused by heroin overdose. Considering how dangerous opioids are, it is surprising to see that they are still prescribed to patients who may be at risk of addiction. Even though opioids are easy for doctors to prescribe to their patients, and very effective for treating pain or injury, they must be reformed.

The most dangerous part about the opioid crisis is the high number of addictions and deaths per year. According to the Opioid Crisis Statistics provided by the U.S. government, over 10 million people misused prescribed opioids, with an additional 750 thousand people using heroin. With such a large number of the U.S. population misusing opioids, you wonder what causes people to become addicted. For most of the 21st century, opioids have been the primary treatment to chronic pain. Opioids have proven to be highly effective in treating chronic pain, which was good enough reason to prescribe them to almost anyone who had symptoms. Those whose pain disappeared when taking opioids kept taking them in order to prevent the pain from returning. This would cause a person’s tolerance to build up over time, which would require higher doses in order to experience the same initial effect. The Institute of Chronic Pain argues that “it is unethical to withhold pain management from patients with chronic pain. Patients will suffer if long-term opioid management is withheld from them.” Although this is true, it does not justify the negative side effects that take thousands of lives every year. A solution to this would be reforming opioids to exclude its addictive properties or for doctors to use alternative solutions, but doctors have not always supported opioid reform.

In the world of modern medicine, there are thousands of treatments for a variety of illnesses. It seems like an easy fix to just completely get rid of prescription opioids and use another treatment, but most doctors continue to prescribe opioids anyway. This does not put the blame on doctors though, as they usually provide instructions for opioid usage and only prescribe them if they would benefit the user. It does become a problem when they are prescribed to people who have suffered addiction in the past or people who could have benefited more from a more expensive or complex treatment. When looking at it from a business standpoint, doctors would rather spend 30 minutes with a patient and prescribe them opioids to solve their problems than spend hours reviewing more complex treatments for a patient’s problems. Opioid reform would also solve this issue, which is exactly what the U.S. government is working on. With over $9 billion in grants from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the opioid crisis is slowly improving, which can be seen in a decline in overdoses by 4.5 percent from 2017 to 2018. This is a very promising statistic, but there is still much to be done.

The opioid crisis has impacted millions of Americans, and will continue to do so for the next decade. Fixing this issue is not something that can be done by just one person, but anyone can help. Recognizing the signs of opioid addiction, including isolation from family and friends, finishing prescribed medication early, and overall behavioral changes, can allow people to support others who may be experiencing opioid addiction.