Why Opioid Abusers Don’t Seek Treatment Even After an Overdose

Opioid drug abuse has reached a crisis level in America, with roughly 90 Americans dying daily from an overdose. This crisis takes a toll on the personal lives of the drug abusers, their families, and on the country as a whole: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate a total economic burden of $78.5 billion, including healthcare costs, lost productivity, addiction treatment, and the costs of criminal justice. The impact of this crisis merits immediate attention.

Opioid Addiction

Addiction to opioid drugs, which include heroin, fentanyl, Vicodin, and many others, does not discriminate; users are young and old, men and women, rich and poor. Some studies show that the groups most likely to abuse prescription medications are:

  • Senior citizens or elderly individuals
  • Young women
  • Adolescents

Many become addicted after receiving prescriptions for genuine medical needs, but others purposefully misuse their prescriptions or buy drugs off the street. Consider the following statistics:

  • 21 to 29% of patients with opioid prescriptions for chronic pain misuse them
  • 8 to 12% of patients with opioid prescriptions develop opioid use disorder
  • 4 to 6% of patients who misuse prescription opioids transition to heroin
  • 80% of heroin users first misused prescription opioids

Opioid Overdose

All opioid drugs affect the brain in the same way, by flooding the brain with dopamine to produce a euphoric high. This high is what makes opioid drugs so addictive. At the same time, opioid drugs slow down breathing rates, and this effect can be dangerous. Opioid overdose occurs when a person takes too much of an opioid drug, causing breathing rates to slow to dangerously low rates or cease altogether, depriving the brain of oxygen. If the overdose is not immediately reversed, serious brain damage or death will occur. Fortunately, treatment of opioid overdose is available. When given right away, naloxone can bind to the same brain receptors as opioids, blocking the opioid drug from binding to brain cells and making the opioid drugs completely ineffective. As the number of opioid overdoses continues to increase, naloxone is becoming more widely available to first responders, hospital emergency rooms, and families of known drug abusers.

Overdose and Intervention

When a person survives an opioid overdose and receives medical treatment, there is an opportunity for a drug intervention.  Doctors can use the overdose treatment as a chance to confront the individual about the drug abuse and encourage him or her to seek treatment for addiction. This is not an uncommon situation; according to the Journal of the American Medical Association, there are 30 nonfatal overdoses for every fatal overdose. However, studies show that doctors frequently fail to take advantage of these situations. Sixty percent of patients received prescriptions for opioid painkillers even after overdosing on opioid drugs, and 40% of patients who overdosed on heroin-filled an opioid prescription afterward. People who survive an overdose of either heroin or opioid painkillers also have low enrollment in medication-assisted treatment programs, with only one-third of heroin cases and one-sixth of opioid cases enrolling.

Why do opioid abusers fail to seek treatment, even after nearly dying? One reason is that with so many people currently suffering from opioid addiction, rehab programs have limited space available. People may be motivated right to seek treatment right after the overdose but lose that motivation while waiting for a spot. Another reason is that privacy laws prevent doctors who treat the overdose from sharing information with the doctors who run treatment programs, putting the burden on the addict to seek treatment.

In spite of these obstacles, opioid addiction can be overcome. If you or someone you love struggle with opioid abuse, call our toll-free number today.

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