5:26 AM 10/20/2017
The opioid epidemic or opioid crisis is the rapid increase in the use of prescription and non-prescription opioid drugs in the United States and Canada in the 2010s. Opioids are a diverse class of moderately strong painkillers, including oxycodone (commonly sold under the trade names OxyContin and Percocet), hydrocodone (Vicodin), and a very strong painkiller, fentanyl, which is synthesized to resemble other opiates such as opium-derived morphine and heroin. The potency and availability of these substances, despite their high risk of addiction and overdose, have made them popular both as formal medical treatments and as recreational drugs. Due to their sedative effects on the part of the brain which regulates breathing, opioids in high doses present the potential for respiratory depression, and may cause respiratory failure and death.
What the U.S. Surgeon General calls “The Opioid Crisis” likely began with over-prescription of powerful opioid pain relievers in the 1990s, which led to them becoming the most prescribed class of medications in the United States. As of 2016 more than 289 million prescriptions were written for opioid drugs per year.:43In the late 1990s, many Americans were diagnosed with chronic pain, estimated to affect around 100 million people or a third of the U.S. population. This led to a push by drug companies and the federal government to expand the use of painkilling opioids. Between 1991 and 2011, painkiller prescriptions in the U.S. tripled from 76 million to 219 million per year. Among the most common opioids prescribed have been oxycodone (OxyContin and Percocet) and hydrocodone (Vicodin). With the increase in volume, potency of opioids also increased. By 2002, one in six drug users were being prescribed drugs more powerful than morphine; by 2012, the ratio had doubled to one-in-three.
Despite the increased use of painkillers, there has been no change in the amount of pain reported in the U.S. This has led to differing medical opinions, with some noting that there is little evidence that opioids are effective for chronic pain not caused by cancer.
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