Prescription opioid overdoses down, but opioid substitute overdoses way up

This week, the PBS NewsHour will be covering the ongoing opioid epidemic in an online and broadcast series called America Addicted.

A growing number of families around the country have been affected by this tragedy. There are now more opioid-related deaths in the U.S. than there are deaths due to gun violence or car accidents.

Considering these grim statistics, it is perhaps a surprising fact that prescription opioid overdoses have actually gone down 5% every year since 2010, as reported today in the journal Health Affairs.

To figure this out, a team of Stanford University School of Medicine researchers culled through the Healthcare Cost and Utilization Project, a large hospital database, to compile statistics regarding opioid abuse from 1997 to 2014.

"While there has been a significant increase in opioid-related admissions over the past two decades, in 2010 admissions for prescription opioid misuse began to decline," senior author Tina Hernandez-Boussard said in a statement.

Although this is good news, the study also found the dark side of the issue: hospital visits associated with heroin and synthetic opioid overdoses have skyrocketed, up by over 30% annually since 2008.

The decline in prescription opioid overdose hospital visits likely coincides with the increase of substitute opioid usage due to a concerted government push to curb opioid abuse. Started in 2010, the National Drug Control Strategy has had a number of initiatives on the federal, state, and local level to combat the crisis, from encouraging health professionals to limit the prescription of opioids to disrupting the black market for these drugs.

WATCH: William Brangham explains how opioids became the biggest drug epidemic in U.S. history.

As the report demonstrates, some of these strategies have been more effective than others. Overdoses from prescribed opioids are down, but the illicit use of opioids is up.

Anna Lembke, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University Medical Center not involved with the study, has seen this trend play out in person when speaking with her patients. Some became addicted to prescribed opioids and, when their prescriptions ran out, turned to heroin or synthetic opioids like fentanyl.

"My patients have told me that's exactly what they did," Lembke said in a statement. "Heroin was cheaper and easier to get."

Though they are highly addictive, opioids have historically been the most effective pain management option, and it is understandable that health professionals rely heavily on their prescription. But, in the face of this growing opioid crisis, perhaps we should look to prescribing alternatives to opioids from the beginning.

And there might just be some promising alternatives to opioids that are now gaining traction--watch Miles test out some of these options on Wednesday night’s PBS NewsHour.

Banner image credit: Wikipedia.


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Fedor Kossakovski is a production assistant for Miles O'Brien Productions.