Revised June 2017
Every day, more than 90 Americans die after overdosing on opioids.1 The misuse of and addiction to opioids—including prescription pain relievers, heroin, and synthetic opioids such as fentanyl—is a serious national crisis that affects public health as well as social and economic welfare. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the total "economic burden" of prescription opioid misuse alone in the United States is $78.5 billion a year, including the costs of healthcare, lost productivity, addiction treatment, and criminal justice involvement.2
How did this happen?
In the late 1990s, pharmaceutical companies reassured the medical community that patients would not become addicted to prescription opioid pain relievers, and healthcare providers began to prescribe them at greater rates. This subsequently led to widespread diversion and misuse of these medications before it became clear that these medications could indeed be highly addictive.3,4 Opioid overdose rates began to increase. In 2015, more than 33,000 Americans died as a result of an opioid overdose, including prescription opioids, heroin, and illicitly manufactured fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid.1 That same year, an estimated 2 million people in the United States suffered from substance use disorders related to prescription opioid pain relievers, and 591,000 suffered from a heroin use disorder (not mutually exclusive).5 Here is what we know about the opioid crisis:
- Roughly 21 to 29 percent of patients prescribed opioids for chronic pain misuse them.6
- Between 8 and 12 percent develop an opioid use disorder.7–9
- An estimated 4 to 6 percent who misuse prescription opioids transition to heroin.7–9
- About 80 percent of people who use heroin first misused prescription opioids.7
This issue has become a public health crisis with devastating consequences including increases in opioid misuse and related overdoses, as well as the rising incidence of neonatal abstinence syndrome due to opioid use and misuse during pregnancy. The increase in injection drug use has also contributed to the spread of infectious diseases including HIV and hepatitis C. As seen throughout the history of medicine, science can be an important part of the solution in resolving such a public health crisis.
What are HHS and NIH doing about it?
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has developed a focused strategy to manage this crisis, with the following five priorities:
- improving access to treatment and recovery services
- promoting use of overdose-reversing drugs
- strengthening our 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
To align with the Department’s priorities, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has developed a three-pronged strategy using science to better manage the opioid crisis. To expedite meeting its goals, NIH has begun to explore a formal partnership with pharmaceutical companies to accelerate progress in identifying and developing the following:
- safe, effective, non-addictive strategies to manage chronic pain
- new, innovative medications and technologies for opioid use disorders
- improved overdose-reversal interventions to saves lives and support recovery
The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) has been leading many of the efforts at NIH to develop improved strategies to address all aspects of the opioid crisis through scientific research. In a presentation at the National Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit in April 2017, NIH Director Francis Collins outlined why research is critical to end the opioid crisis. Also, in a May 2017 New England Journal of Medicine special report, Drs. Volkow and Collins lay out a plan to accelerate research in three crucial areas: overdose reversal, addiction treatment, and pain management.
- Blog - “All Scientific Hands on Deck” to End the Opioid Crisis (May 2017)
- Blog - Addressing America’s Fentanyl Crisis (April 2017)
- Blog - The CDC Provides Crucial New Guidance on Opioids and Pain (April 2016)
- Testimony - What Science tells us About Opioid Abuse and Addiction (January 2016)
- Testimony - What is the Federal Government Doing to Combat the Opioid Abuse Epidemic? (May 2015)
- Testimony - America’s Addiction to Opioids: Heroin and Prescription Drug Abuse (May 2014)
- Rudd RA, Seth P, David F, Scholl L. Increases in Drug and Opioid-Involved Overdose Deaths — United States, 2010–2015. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2016;65. doi:10.15585/mmwr.mm655051e1.
- Florence CS, Zhou C, Luo F, Xu L. The Economic Burden of Prescription Opioid Overdose, Abuse, and Dependence in the United States, 2013. Med Care. 2016;54(10):901-906. doi:10.1097/MLR.0000000000000625.
- Morone NE, Weiner DK. Pain as the fifth vital sign: exposing the vital need for pain education. Clin Ther. 2013;35(11):1728-1732. doi:10.1016/j.clinthera.2013.10.001.
- Van Zee A. The Promotion and Marketing of OxyContin: Commercial Triumph, Public Health Tragedy. Am J Public Health. 2009;99(2):221-227. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2007.131714.
- Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality (CBHSQ). 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Detailed Tables. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration; 2016.
- Vowles KE, McEntee ML, Julnes PS, Frohe T, Ney JP, van der Goes DN. Rates of opioid misuse, abuse, and addiction in chronic pain: a systematic review and data synthesis. Pain. 2015;156(4):569-576. doi:10.1097/01.j.pain.0000460357.01998.f1.
- Muhuri PK, Gfroerer JC, Davies MC. Associations of Nonmedical Pain Reliever Use and Initiation of Heroin Use in the United States. CBHSQ Data Rev. August 2013.
- Cicero TJ, Ellis MS, Surratt HL, Kurtz SP. The Changing Face of Heroin Use in the United States: A Retrospective Analysis of the Past 50 Years. JAMA Psychiatry. 2014;71(7):821-826. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2014.366.
- Carlson RG, Nahhas RW, Martins SS, Daniulaityte R. Predictors of transition to heroin use among initially non-opioid dependent illicit pharmaceutical opioid users: A natural history study. Drug Alcohol Depend. 2016;160:127-134. doi:10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2015.12.026.
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