The Opioid Epidemic: Alternative Therapies Prescribed by Physicians

There is a major health crisis sweeping the United States: an opioid epidemic so out of control that the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that 142 people are losing their lives to drug overdose every day. In addition, the CDC found that approximately 80% of people using illegal opioids, like heroin, first misused prescription opioids they were given as part of a medical treatment plan.

The crisis is so severe that President Donald Trump declared it to be a public health emergency, giving officials more leniency to modify certain insurance requirements as well as the ability to enhance certain patient safety and privacy regulations. These regulation changes also allow states to have easier access to federal public health funds with the goal of enacting new programs and initiatives geared toward making a positive impact on the opioid crisis.

While the government is working at both the federal and state level to educate the medical community and provide guidelines around the legal distribution of these drugs, it is vital patients are informed of the risks and benefits associated with opioid use before requesting or filling these prescriptions.

Opioids can be used to safely to manage certain injuries and/or chronic pain, but when used improperly, they can also have a long-lasting negative impact:

  • Addictive Tendencies: Opioids impact the brain’s natural pleasure-reward center and can give a false sense of euphoria, generating a desire to use the opioid outside of the manner in which it was prescribed.
  • Sedation or Sleepiness: Opioid use causes some patients to have trouble remaining alert, leading to an increased risk of a fall or other accident.
  • Respiratory Depression: Improper use of opioids can cause a patient’s breathing to slow, resulting in potential organ injury or death.
  • Physical Discomfort: Opioids can cause vomiting, nausea, and constipation which in severe cases can result in permanent injury and/or death.

The misuse of opioids costs the U.S. approximately $78.5 billion per year. This number includes the costs of healthcare, lost workplace productivity, and addiction treatment. The CDC finds that about one in four people prescribed opioids as part of their long-term medical care struggle with addiction. It is important to the U.S. economy and its overall public health to help reduce this opioid abuse and provide services for Americans currently struggling with addiction.

An increase in available information surrounding the negative impact of opioids has encouraged physicians to turn to some alternative, non-addictive treatment options for pain control. Some of these options include:

  • Over-the-counter acetaminophen and anti-inflammatory drugs: While there are still risks with these types of medications such as ulcers, organ toxicity, and kidney and liver failure, they have shown to be less addicting.
  • Physical therapy: While it may sound less enjoyable, physical therapy can help patients gain strength and learn to alter movements to more safely prevent worsening pain and/or additional injuries in the future.
  • Massage, acupuncture, and chiropractic care: These are safe alternatives performed by licensed professionals that are non-addictive and free of side effects.
  • Exercise: Some physicians and physical therapists may help patients design low-impact exercise routines geared toward increasing mobility and functionality to improve overall quality of life.

Every patient’s needs are different, and any and all treatment options should be discussed with a doctor or other healthcare professional. However, as we continue to gain information about the dangers of opioid use, it is important for patients to feel comfortable discussing their treatment options and to understand the potential risks and side effects. 

If you or someone you know may be struggling, or if you have questions or concerns, call 901.866.8630.

Contributed by the Medical team at UT Addiction Medicine,

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