Opioid analgesics such as morphine, codeine, Vicodin® and Percocet® are important medicines that doctors widely prescribe to relieve pain. Used properly, the drugs can provide significant comfort and relief to people who are sick or recovering from an injury or disease.
Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy
But misuse and abuse of opioids has become a major public health challenge in the United States – particularly among youngsters.
More than 15,500 people died in the United States in 2009 after overdosing on narcotic pain relievers, according to the Food and Drug Administration — a 300 percent increase over the preceding 20 years.
In addition, for every death, there were another 10 treatment admissions, 32 emergency department visits and 825 nonmedical users of these drugs.
“This rise in opioid availability has been, I think, the single most dramatic change that we’ve seen in the addiction field in the last 10 years, says Gregory Collins, MD, section head of the Cleveland Clinic Alcohol and Drug Recovery Center.
“What we’re seeing is very powerful opiates that are available to people everywhere, in all neighborhoods,” Dr. Collins says. “No place is really spared access to these powerful chemicals.”
Opiates are drugs derived from the poppy plant. Prescription medicines that fall within this class include:
- Hydrocodone (such asVicodin®) — Most commonly prescribed for a variety of painful conditions, including dental and injury-related pain.
- Oxycodone (such as OxyContin® or Percocet®).
- Morphine — Often used before and after surgical procedures to alleviate severe pain.
- Codeine and codeine-related drugs — Often prescribed for mild pain.
Where did this epidemic come from? Dr. Collins says the number of people addicted to opiates stayed relatively stable until around 1995. But then, new, more powerful pain relief medications became available for prescription.
Some patients who take these drugs under a doctor’s care become psychologically and physically dependent on them — and continue to take them after the original medical need is gone. Some people, if they lose their jobs, health insurance or access to prescription painkillers, may even turn to heroin, which is cheaper and perhaps more readily available.
More youths misusing prescription painkillers
One disturbing trend, Dr. Collins says, is the growth in adolescents’ abuse of opioids. In 2009, 3,000 young adults died from a prescription drug overdose, a 250 percent increase over 1999.
“What we have now are young people who’ve started on this path of drug involvement in their teenage years,” Dr. Collins says. “By the time they’re in their early 20s, they’re heavy users of heroin. These are people from good families and nice neighborhoods who have had many advantages, many opportunities and a good education.”
Typically, a teen becomes introduced to these drugs after getting injured playing sports and perhaps undergoing surgery, Dr. Collins says. The teen might be prescribed a strong pain reliever, become addicted and then progress to more powerful pain medications or even heroin.
“Often this involvement in heavy drugs has turned them into individuals that their families wouldn’t even recognize. Very often they’re stealing things from their families, taking TVs out of the house, and selling things, taking money from their relatives and buying drugs and obtaining drugs in various other ways.”
6 Myths About Painkillers
The Down Side and Side Effects of Painkillers