Oxycontin and Oxycodone: The Gateway Opiates

We are currently in the midst of an opiate epidemic that has wreaked havoc across all sections of the country and has only gained momentum as the years pass by.  It has been about a decade that numbers have steadily risen regarding people seeking treatment, being incarcerated or succumbing to their addiction.

The numbers are staggering, as the estimated number of emergency department visits involving non-medical use of opioid analgesics increased from 144,600 in 2004 to 305,900 in 2008, treatment admissions for primary abuse of opiates other than heroin increased from one percent of all admissions in 1997 to five percent in 2007, and overdose deaths due to prescription opioid pain relievers have more than tripled in the past 20 years, escalating to 16,651 deaths in the United States in 2010.

Similarities to Heroin

The fact that the number of all things terrible related to the abuse and addiction to heroin can all be said about oxycontin and oxycodone is alarming. The chemical structure of these prescription pain killers is nearly identical to that of heroin.  The euphoric sensation associated with heroin use is identical to that of oxycodone.  The effects on the brains reward center is identical.  So why all the confusion as to why the increase in heroin abuse around the country coincides with that of oxycodone is astounding.  The lack of education surrounding the current epidemic responsible for the destruction of millions of lives in this country alone is reprehensible.

How the Cycle Starts

There is a large number of people who currently suffer with heroin addiction who began abusing oxycodone.  The stigma surrounding heroin is not so strong when most people look at oxycontin as just another pharmaceutical to use.  Many people who begin to experiment with drug use have several lines that they cross as time goes on, and they do not start by thinking they will be the ones to cross into hardcore drugs such as heroin.  The way that people tend to make the cross into heroin addiction are those coming from a regular abuse of other opioids.  If you can imagine, somebody who is already using narcotics such as Xanax or Vicodin with a seeming impunity may hear of a similar pill with similar effects and stronger potency and make the seemingly marginal jump to abusing oxycontin.

Oxycontin and Oxycodone Dependence

After repeated use, physical and mental dependency can quickly take a hold.  The withdrawal from opiates is painful, and often leads people into making choices they normally would not make, and cross lines they have drawn for themselves.  When withdrawing from oxycodone, other opiates of abuse will become more and more acceptable as a means of curing the acute symptoms of withdrawal.  With the ever-increasing availability of heroin on the streets all across the country, many people who would never seem to have the access to drugs like heroin are more likely to find this option.

There is a tragic narrative growing ever more common in this country of people experimenting with less lethal drugs becoming exposed to drugs such as oxycodone, then diving further into their addiction with heroin.  Many people who are prescribed opiate pain killers for legitimate treatment of injury find themselves dependent on the very medication that eases their suffering, and when the prescription runs out they turn to the streets to ease the withdrawal they experience.

Doctors are often weary of keeping their patients prescribed high doses of pain killers for extended periods of time due to the overwhelming potential for dependency to develop.  This is a good concern to exercise, but the pitfall that will often beseech a medical professional is the inconsistency of dependency potential in each of their patients.  The fact of the matter is that every person reacts differently to treatment, and the cessation of narcotic prescription.

If there is a predetermined caution to the chance of addiction for all patients, anybody who is suffering from extreme pain may be scrutinized as a potential drug seeking client.  Many patients who need the medication will be cut off of it early due to the risk of dependency, and others will be continuously prescribed it due to risk of overwhelming pain.  With two such stark risks run on either side of the discontinuing of opiate prescription, there is a greater weight put into the decision.

Opiate Withdrawal

When somebody discontinues use of heavy pain killers after a period of time, they will often experience the painful and intense sensations of withdrawal.  Using a drug to relieve pain, then experiencing incredible pain in its absence is quite the conundrum.  Why would somebody who is using an opioid for pain not seek out more of the drug to relieve the pain they feel from not taking the drug?  If this seems like some sort of a sick catch-22, that would be because it is.

Long-Term Effects

When you pile on the consequences of addiction to something as powerful as heroin which often stems from the abuse of these more commonly found pain killers, it really compounds the dangers.  If there is a long period of use of prescribed medications like oxycontin, there is a higher risk of addiction resulting from the prolonged exposure to the narcotics, deriving from the way that they interact with the GABA receptors in the brain.  Opiates produce overwhelming senses of euphoria and well-being in the user.  Prolonged use of the opiates, and therefore a prolonged decrease in need to produce these endorphins leads people to not have a healthy amount of production of them naturally.

This is a general idea of what dependency is described as when speaking of chemical dependency.  It is the reliance upon outside chemicals to produce a healthy level of endorphins needed to experience a feeling of well-being.  Without these outside chemicals, there is a sense of urgent necessity to introduce them into our bloodstream to just feel normal.  Without these chemicals coming from oxycontin whether it is prescribed, or obtained illegally, people suffering from withdrawal will be able to experience the relief they need through heroin in an increasingly more available environment the longer this epidemic goes without resolve.

Last Updated on February 23, 2024


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