white oxycodone pills spilling out of prescription bottle

Oxycodone and America’s Obsession With Painkillers

America’s reliance and addiction to painkillers is not slowing down, despite ongoing federal, state and local efforts. OxyContin (extended release oxycodone) is partially to blame for the opioid epidemic that has gripped the nation the last decade or so – a crisis that has escalated dramatically over the last few years.

After OxyContin was approved in 1995, Purdue Pharma launched an aggressive marketing strategy targeting physicians with less training in pain management techniques. This led to more than 50% of all OxyContin prescriptions being written by primary care physicians rather than pain specialists.

OxyContin was a cash cow for Purdue, resulting in $45 million in sales the first year after its 1996 release and $2.528 billion by 2014 in the U.S. alone. By 2013, more than 1,000 Americans were treated daily in emergency departments for prescription opioid misuse and by 2014, 4.3 million were abusing prescription opioids for non-medical reasons.

The federal government and about 50% of states have enacted restrictions, such as limiting the dose or duration of prescription opioids. Insurers and pharmacies began imposing similar limits on opioid use for acute pain, as opposed to opioid use for cancer and chronic pain.

The Drug Enforcement Administration has increased efforts to crack down on unscrupulous healthcare providers and illicit sales. Many medical groups have issued guidelines recommending prescribers offer alternative pain management options whenever possible and limit doses and duration of opioid prescriptions.

Illegal Sales of Oxycodone

Despite crackdowns and warnings, about 115 people lose their lives every day to opioid overdoses, including oxycodone, fentanyl and heroin. And every day, countless stories are published about illicit sales of opioids, fueled by greed and oxycodone addiction.

A recent case involved sales of tens of thousands of oxycodone pills obtained illegally from people with prescriptions and sold on the street. “As alleged, these defendants created a network spanning New York City to Connecticut for the distribution of tens of thousands of highly addictive and dangerous pills, helping to fuel the opioid epidemic plaguing our nation,” said Geoffrey Berman, the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, in a statement.

Why Is Oxycodone Addictive?

Opioid-based drugs and medications such as oxycodone have the potential to produce changes in brain chemistry. Associated euphoria, withdrawal and tolerance (a need for escalating doses to alleviate pain) can result in misuse, physical dependence and addiction, especially without medical oversight from a prescribing pain specialist. Depression and anxiety associated with chronic pain may be relieved temporarily by the pain-relieving and euphoric effects of opioids, contributing to abuse in people who suffer from chronic pain. And some people without chronic pain misuse painkillers with alcohol and other drugs, either unintentionally or intentionally to cope with co-occurring mental health issues such as depression.

Prescription Painkiller Facts and Stats

  • About 21-29% of individuals who are prescribed opioids for chronic pain misuse them.
  • In 2016, an estimated 6.9 million Americans aged 12 and older misused prescription pain medicine in the past year.
  • Between 8 and 12% of people develop an opioid use disorder.
  • An estimated 4 to 6% of those who misuse prescription opioids transition to heroin.
  • About 80% of people who use heroin misused prescription opioids first.

Fighting the Opioid Crisis

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services identified the following five strategic priorities to fight the opioid crisis:

  • Improving access to treatment and recovery services
  • Promoting use of overdose-reversing drugs
  • Strengthening understanding of the epidemic through better public health surveillance
  • Providing support for cutting-edge research on pain and addiction
  • Advancing better practices for pain management

In 2016, 5 billion oxycodone tablets were distributed legally in the U.S., the second most popular prescription opioid after hydrocodone, with 6.2 billion tablets.

On a positive note, public awareness about the dangers of addiction resulted in the biggest drop in opioid painkiller prescriptions in 25 years. In 2017, opioid prescriptions were down 12% from the prior year.

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