There is an epidemic of deaths from drug overdoses in nearly every county across the U.S. driven by an increase in addiction to both prescription painkillers like OxyCondin, Vicodin and Percocet as well as heroin. The number of these deaths reached 47,055 people in 2014, equivalent to 125 Americans everyday.
West Virginia, which has many blue-collar workers who tend to experience work-related chronic pain, has the highest overdose death rate in the nation. Drug deaths have also skyrocketed in New Hampshire and New Mexico, which has had high multi-generational death rates from heroin overdoses since the 1990s. The NY Times recently did a front-page article about the public face of heroin addiction. People inject themselves on city buses in Philadelphia, church bathrooms in Cambridge, Mass and the bathrooms of fast food restaurants, parks, hospitals and libraries across the nation. No longer hidden in back alleys, and not enough treatment facilities to address this national scourge.
Today the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) released new guidelines for the prescription of painkillers to stem the tide of opioid deaths. Dr. Thomas R. Frieden, director of the CDC, said, “We lose sight of the fact that prescription opioids are just as addictive as heroin.” The guidelines recommend that doctors first try ibuprofen and aspirin to treat pain and that opioid treatment for short-term pain be limited to only 3 days and no longer than 7 days except to relieve end-of-life discomfort. Dr. Frieden pointed out that one study found 1 out of every 32 patients who started on opioid therapy at high doses died of opioid related causes within 2 ½ years after their first prescription.
This is the first time the federal government has communicated to the medical community and the pharmaceutical industry that long-term use of opioids is inappropriate. Hopefully, the next step in the successful treatment of opioid and heroin addiction will be drug-free alternative approaches such as acupuncture.