Opioids are prescription painkillers that are used for severe pain when no other alternatives are available and all other treatments have not achieved pain relief. They are supposed to be used sparingly, but their use has sparked an epidemic in the United States due to their dangerously high addictive potential. These pain medications are currently overused by Americans and are a large cause for an increase in mortality rates in recent years.
“Of the 21.5 million Americans 12 or older that had a substance use disorder in 2014, 1.9 million had a substance use disorder involving prescription pain relievers and 586,000 had a substance use disorder involving heroin. … Opioid addiction is driving this epidemic, with 18,893 overdose deaths related to prescription pain relievers, and 10,574 overdose deaths related to heroin in 2014,” according to the American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM).
Opioids are not the only pills responsible for mortalities. Anti-anxiety drugs known as benzodiazepines have also been known to cause an increasing amount of deaths among individuals undergoing severe withdrawals. Although overdose from benzodiazepines is definitely possible, death from withdrawal seizures is what makes these addictive substances so dangerous. Benzodiazepines are used to treat anxiety, phobias and alcohol withdrawal, but they have a high potential for abuse and should only be prescribed for very short durations. Benzodiazepines work on the same neurological receptors as alcohol and, therefore, produce the same withdrawal effects when abruptly stopped.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a strong warning against the use of both opioids and benzodiazepines combined, as this combination is a lethal recipe for disaster. It is not uncommon for patients to have prescriptions for both opioids and benzodiazepines, as many patients keep their unused prescriptions, resulting in an overfilled medicine cabinet. The FDA is placing a boxed warning on all opioids and benzodiazepines to alert the public that taking this combination is lethal. Additionally, the FDA is strongly urging physicians to not prescribe these drugs in combination to patients.
A growing epidemic
This warning by the FDA came at the same time as the Surgeon General’s warning to physicians about halting the prescription of opioids to fight against the growing epidemic.
“The results have been devastating. Since 1999, opioid overdose deaths have quadrupled and opioid prescriptions have increased markedly – almost enough for every adult in America to have a bottle of pills. Yet the amount of pain reported by Americans has not changed. Now, nearly 2 million people in America have a prescription opioid use disorder, contributing to increased heroin use and the spread of HIV and hepatitis C,” according to the Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, M.D.
With both of these warnings, it is imperative that our medical leaders educate their patients about the prescription drug issue in the United States, as it is costing thousands of lives per year. Patients should take the liberty of reading about the medications they are given to make informed decisions. Although these medications are traditionally given via prescriptions, the street drug market has been a booming industry for opioids and benzodiazepines alike, playing a large role in the overdose rates. Political and legislative leaders are working diligently to combat the production and sale of street drugs, demonstrating that no one person or organization is responsible for this epidemic.
The FDA and the Surgeon General have both taken an active stance in fighting against the prescription drug epidemic; hopefully this warning can raise even more public awareness to stop the abuse of benzodiazepines and opioids alike.
Sovereign Health is a leading behavioral health treatment provider with locations across the United States. We treat people with and mental illness, substance abuse and co-occurring disorders. To learn more about our treatment programs for prescription drug and opioid abuse, please call our 24/7 helpline to speak to a member of our team.
About the author
Kristen Fuller, M.D., is a senior staff writer at Sovereign Health and enjoys writing about evidence-based topics in the cutting-edge world of medicine. She is a physician and author who also teaches, practices medicine in the urgent care setting and contributes to medicine board education. She is also an outdoor and dog enthusiast. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.