There is currently a great deal of public discussion about the link between the heroin epidemic and prescription pain medications.
Although the reasons are complicated and differ depending upon the person, we can trace the connection to one primary cause: addiction driven by a simple desire to feel better and/or live pain-free.
I’d like to examine the link between heroin and prescription medications taken for chronic pain. Maybe an old college football injury causes nagging lower-back spasms or there’s constant pain from arthritis, surgery or a car accident. A patient experiencing long-term pain naturally expresses a desire for relief and his or her doctor may prescribe an opioid to help keep the pain under control.
What many people don’t realize is that the longer a person takes opiates, the more likely he or she will become addicted. These drugs can even cause more pain—a condition known as hyperalgesia—and higher doses are required to ease the increasing suffering.
That’s why opiates are not a long-term solution for chronic pain. They should not be used beyond the initial acute pain stage—generally about six months.
But addiction is a powerful force.
Once someone becomes dependent on opiates, they become increasingly tolerant to the drugs. When the dosage is dialed down or cut off completely, people experience withdrawal and may seek other ways to feed the addiction. Some use other means of ingesting the drugs to intensify the effect.
They may even turn to heroin, a less expensive option than prescription pain medications. The opioid class of drugs commonly prescribed for pain relief is actually chemically related to heroin.
The statistics about the current heroin epidemic are alarming. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, while the prescribing of opiates is down for the first time since 2010, the use of heroin is increasing. This tells us that restricting the supply of opiates doesn’t decrease the demand among those who are dependent or addicted.
Simply taking away the problematic drugs doesn’t solve the problem. Nor is it enough to only treat the body part that’s causing chronic pain.
Understanding the correlation between prescription pain medications and heroin is critical—not only to combat the epidemic but to inform people who are suffering from chronic pain about alternatives. We must offer holistic treatment solutions that address the entire person—mind, body and spirit.