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Business, STEM

America’s Addiction Epidemic: Can You Get Addicted To Opioids If You Take Two Pain Pills?

Image-Opioid-EpidemicThe above question came from a young friend who had surgery following a gardening accident. My response: I don’t think so, especially if you have never taken opioids before.

Accidents will and do happen! About two weeks ago, my young friend was helping a local landscaper with a yard project. Before the day ended, he would be carried to the hospital suffering cuts to the tips of three fingers on his right hand from the blade of the lawn mower that he was using. While I am not clear on the events and the sequence in which they occurred, one thing that everyone agrees on is that it all happened very quickly.

After an inspection of his right hand by emergency room professionals, it was determined that surgery would be required because the blade cut to the bone of one of his fingers. Surgery was scheduled for later that evening at 7 p.m. Before his discharge from the hospital, he received a written prescription for OxyContin and was told not to attend school for the rest of the week. The next day the pain in his right hand was severe. As he described it, “It feels like a jack hammer is ripping my hand apart.”

He didn’t want to take the pain pills because so many negative things have been written or discussed about opioids and the people who become addicted to them. I explained to him that this prescription was written to reduce the pain associated with the accident and surgery, and it would take more than two pills to become addicted to these powerful drugs. While we hear a lot about those who become addicted to opioids, millions of people take these drugs safely with no side effects. Most of those who become addicted are on these drugs for extended periods of time, often years, or use prescription medication to create a high or euphoric feeling.

What is known, for sure, is that America is in the middle of a horrible addiction epidemic. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 1 million people in the United States have died between 1995 and 2015 due to drugs, alcohol or suicide. Since then, the numbers have continued to rise. [Ref 1] “We don’t know who will become addicted,” says Dr. Clayton Chau, a substance abuse expert at Providence St. Joseph Health’s Institute for Mental Health and Wellness in California. Despite the stereotypes, addiction is not linked to character flaws or bad behavior. “People need to understand that drug addiction is a mental illness, a brain disease,” Chau explains.

Additional data from the Department of Health and Human Services show that in 2015 [Ref 2]:

  • 12.5 million people misused prescription opioids
  • 2.1 million people misused prescription opioids for the first time
  • 33,091 persons died from overdosing on opioids

The opioid addiction crisis has been identified as a national emergency by President Donald Trump. Opioids are a class of drugs that include the illegal drug heroin, synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, and pain relievers available legally by prescription, such as oxycodone (OxyContin®), hydrocodone (Vicodin®), codeine, morphine, and many others. These drugs are chemically related and interact with opioid receptors on nerve cells in the body and brain. Opioid pain relievers are generally safe when taken for a short time and as prescribed by a doctor, but because they produce euphoria in addition to pain relief, they can be misused (taken in a different way or in a larger quantity than prescribed, or taken without a doctor’s prescription). [Ref 3]

Here are some other things we know about America’s addiction problem:

  • Prior to 1990s, the use of opioids to treat pain was limited.
  • The amount of opioids prescribed for pain and other ailments is much greater than what is needed. The medical community has over-prescribed opioids.
  • Many users turn to cheaper street drugs like heroin and fentanyl.
  • Heroin and fentanyl are flooding into non-urban areas and is tied to the increased addiction to opioids.

Drug addiction is not only an American problem, it is a global issue. The epidemic is a threat to our community and society, healthcare systems, and the economic welfare of our country. In the article, Chemical Engineers Respond to the Addiction Epidemic [Ref 4], authors Sujata K. Bhatia, MD, P.E. and David L. Turock state that because chemical engineers have a duty to serve the public and address pressing societal needs, it is critical that they develop processes and products to help prevent and address drug addiction.

Expect more post on America’s addiction epidemic from A Bridge for Business & STEM with a focus on current trends and solutions to this crisis.

Sources Cited:

  1. These are the Voices of America’s Opioid Addiction, by Mairi Mackay. This post appeared in The Daily Dose on January 26, 2018, and in Ozy Magazine on January 30, 2018, http://www.ozy.com/true-story/these-are-the-voices-of-americas-opioid-addiction/83157?utm_source=dd&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=01302018&variable=20c6449793ea04708f7da78f152f0d71
  2. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “About the Epidemic”, https://www.hhs.gov/opioids/about-the-epidemic/index.html
  3. National Institute of Drug Abuse, Opioids – A Brief Description, https://www.drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse/opioids
  4. Chemical Engineers Respond to the Addiction Epidemic, by Sujata K. Bhatia, MD, P.E. (University of Delaware) and David L. Turock (Harvard University), Chemical Engineering Progress, November 2017 issue, pp 29-33






About Vi Brown

Vi is principal and CEO of Prophecy Consulting Group, LLC, an Arizona firm that provides business and engineering services to private and public clients. Prior to establishing her consulting practice in 2001, Vi worked with Motorola, Maricopa County Government, Pacific Gas & Electric, CH2M Hill, and Procter & Gamble. As an adjunct faculty member, Vi teaches undergraduate calculus classes and graduate level environmental courses. She is also a professional speaker.


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