Prescription Drug Abuse the New Gateway to Heroin Addiction

Prescription painkiller abuse is a deadly epidemic that is taking a devastating toll across the United States. CNN recently reported that accidental prescription drug overdose now is the leading cause of acute preventable death for Americans. According to the report, “every 19 minutes someone dies of an accidental prescription drug overdose. Most of the time it involves an opiate. It’s now more common than dying in a car crash.”

Also alarming, several studies have linked the sharp rise in “nonmedical” (not prescribed or supervised by a medical professional) prescription drug use – particularly with opioid pain relievers like hydrocodone and oxycodone (brand names Vicodin® and OxyContin®) – to spikes in heroin use nationwide. The Centers for Disease Control reports that in a recent study of heroin users, 75 percent who started using heroin after 2000 said they first abused prescription opioids.
“This trend is understandable considering the similarities between the drugs,” explained Jeremy Martinez, M.D., CEO/Executive Director of Matrix Institute on Addictions. “They affect the brain the same way to relieve pain and create a sense of drowsy euphoria.

“Heroin’s big draw, and what makes it especially attractive to teens and young adults, is that it’s cheaper, easier to get and more potent than prescription drugs,” he continued.
Typically, doctors prescribe opiates to alleviate severe pain following an injury or surgery. When taken as prescribed, they are relatively safe and can reduce pain effectively. Nonetheless, dependence and addiction are potential risks when taking prescription opioids under any circumstances.

“As dependency increases, the higher a person’s tolerance for the drug becomes – resulting in them needing more and more of the drug, a tell-tale sign of dependence,” Dr. Martinez noted.
Opioid dependency can also cause serious health problems, including organ damage, cardiac arrest and respiratory failure. Higher doses of opioids slow down breathing and heart rate. Thus, the risk of overdose is ever present.

Once addicted to prescription drugs or heroin, it’s extremely hard to stop taking them. Someone trying to quit abusing opioids usually goes through severe (though not physically dangerous) withdrawals, such as high anxiety, nausea, muscle and bone pain, insomnia, diarrhea, vomiting, cold chills with goose bumps, restlessness and involuntary leg movements.

Dr. Martinez points out that another reason this new route to heroin use is posing public health concerns is the resulting increase in intravenous drug use, which is known to spread diseases such as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and hepatitis.