The Well-Known Effects of Opioids

I was re-reading a book by George MacDonald, entitled The Curates Awakening. I had forgotten an aspect of one of the main characters plight: opioid addiction. What struck me as I read this paragraph was the age-old, well-known addictive qualities of opioids:

“From a tragic accident of his childhood, he had become acquainted with the influences of a certain baneful drug (opium), to which one of his Indian servants was addicted. Now…to escape from gnawing thoughts, he began to experiment with it. Experimentation called for repetition, and repetition first led to a longing after its effects, and next, to a mad appetite for the thing itself…on the verge of absolute slavery to its use.”

This was written in 1870. Laudanum – an opium tincture that contains almost all of the opium alkaloids, including morphine and codeine – was developed in the 16th century. By the 18th century, the medicinal properties of opium and laudanum were well known.

By the 19th century, laudanum was used in many patent medicines to relieve pain, to produce sleep, to allay irritation.The Romantic and Victorian eras were marked by the widespread use of laudanum in Europe and the United States. The early 20th century brought increased regulation of all narcotics as the addictive properties of opium became more widely understood. By mid 20th century, the use of opiates was generally limited to the treatment of pain, and were no longer medically accepted “cure-alls”. (Wikipedia)

How is it that the manufacturers of OxyContin (Purdue Pharma) and other prescription opioids claimed and advertised that they were not addictive? Their scheme was so persuasive that I have friends today that believe that if you are truly in pain, opioids are not addictive. This is absolutely false. And how did the FDA let this go on?

Yes, we can be thankful that new ways to deliver pain relief were developed for patients with extreme pain from cancer and terminal illnesses. I have seen the need for it when I cared for my sister who was dying of brain cancer and had a morphine drip. But the wholesale promoting – pushing – of these drugs for every ache and pain while knowing how absolutely addictive they were is unconscionable. Had we really understood the power of opioids when we first learned our son was addicted, we would have taken a much more pro-active approach to his initial recovery program.

On October 30, 2017, The New Yorker published a must-read multi-page exposé on Mortimer Sackler, Purdue Pharma, and the Sackler family, by Patrick Radden Keefe:
https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/10/30/the-family-that-built-an-empire-of-pain

“The Sacker dynasty’s ruthless marketing of painkillers

has generated billions of dollars – and millions of addicts.”

The article links Raymond and Arthur Sackler’s business acumen with direct pharmaceutical marketing and the rise of addiction to OxyContin. The article implies that the Sackler’s bear moral responsibility for the Opioid epidemic. During the sixties, Arthur got rich marketing the tranquilizers Librium and Valium using techniques were sometimes blatantly deceptive. In 1974 Mortimer renounced his US Citizenship and lived a flamboyant life in his many residences in Europe.

OxyContin was introduced in 1996 and just since 1999, two hundred thousand Americans have died from overdoses related to OxyContin and other prescription opioids.Many addicts, finding prescription painkillers too expensive or too difficult to obtain, have turned to heroin. According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, four out of five people who try heroin today started with prescription painkillers. Our son is one of those statistics – and fatalities.

Access to Medications for Addiction?

In a conversation with a friend, she felt that drug addiction was basically related to poor choices and that recovery was also just a matter of choosing to stop. I guess at the core of it, she is right. An addict needs to decide they want to stop – but then what? Do they just exert will power, go through withdrawals and possibly a 12-step program, then all is well?

Sadly, this simplistic approach will not work for most opiate addicts. The physical changes that have taken place in the brain that cause the addiction need time – and lots of it – to even partially regenerate. The Ohio Society of Addiction Medicine recently posted this (https://ohsam.org/2018/01/12):

“Studies…have found that opioid addiction medications in general cut all-cause mortality among opioid addiction patients by half or more. The CDC, National Institute on Drug Abuse, and World Health Organization acknowledge their medical value.”

The blog continues to discuss the lack of access that the majority of addicts in America have to the three medicines that specifically treat opioid addiction and some of the reasons for it:

“A major reason for that is stigma. These medications are often characterized as ‘replacing one drug with another’…This fundamentally misunderstands how (opioid) addiction works. The problem is not drug use per se; most Americans, after all, use caffeine, alcohol, and medications without major problems. The problem is when drug use becomes a personal or social burden — risk of overdose or leading someone to commit crimes to obtain drugs.  Medications for opioid addiction, by staving opioid withdrawal and cravings without leading to a significant risk of overdose, mitigate or outright eliminate those problems — treating the core concerns with addiction.”

Then there is the issue of large segments of the country without doctors who can prescribe buprenorphine/naloxone due to licensing limits – and the costs for patients.

“In a 2016 report by the surgeon general, just 10 percent of Americans with a drug use disorder obtain specialty treatment…attributing the low rate to severe shortages in the supply of care, with some areas of the country lacking affordable options for any treatment — which can lead to waiting periods of weeks or even months.” By then, it is too late for many addicts seeking help.

“Another reason for the treatment gap is a lack of federal attention…the Cures Act committed $1 billion over two years…woefully short of the tens of billions annually that experts argue is necessary to deal with the opioid epidemic…the total economic burden of prescription opioid overdose, misuse, and addiction of $78.5 billion in 2013, about a third of which was due to higher health care and addiction treatment costs.”

I can say that our son desperately wanted to be free of his addiction that started when he was too young to realize the ball and chain that would drag him down and keep him from his hopes and dreams – and eventually take his life. Thankfully, he did have access to some medical help. Incredibly, even after so many relapses, his father and I felt he could beat his addiction without medication – if he just worked harder. We were sadly mistaken.

The Hijacked Brain

I watched an interview on the PBS Newshour the other night with a physician whose young son recently died of a heroin overdose. He has started a foundation to help raise awareness and to bring an end to this deadly epidemic. My husband and I connected with him on so many levels: having a wonderful and brilliant son – who desperately wanted to be free of his addiction – die a needless death; the remorse over not knowing what we could have done differently to help our son; the desire to do something to help others before they are forced to share our pain and grief. In the interview he reiterated the truth that few people understand about opioid addiction: once a person is addicted to opioids, they are truly not normal or themselves any more. The drug has hijacked their brain and they are not capable of thinking normally. They must have the drug at any cost.

This is the reason that there are so few opioid addicts who live long enough to enjoy recovery, as opposed to addicts who use uppers like cocaine or meth. As Tracey Helton Mitchell said in her memoir, The Big Fix: “Heroin kept me chasing my tail, but crack (cocaine) finally sent me into recovery.” Our son’s addiction doctor put it this way: “Most people will build up tolerance to opioids and that tolerance is what leads to addiction. Once addicted, it is only over a long period of time with medication and group therapy (like the 12-Steps) that a person has hope of being free. This is why I call it the cancer of brain diseases’.”

In her article in The Washington Post, December 1st, Dr. Sandra Block (a neurologist) gives further evidence as seen on EEG’s on the changes to the brain that opioids cause:

“Neurologically speaking, opioids are crafty. They turn the brain’s own electricity against it, rewiring connections in an endless feedback loop for more drugs. They trick the brain into a death trap, as users chase the chemical bliss from the drugs with more drugs. Acute opioid usage (that is, the high itself) translates into slowing on the EEG. Usually, such an effect is transient, carefully monitored by an anesthesiologist during surgery, for instance. But when the patient becomes the anesthesiologist, the cycle can become lethal…the opioids overwhelm the brain’s respiratory center, causing cardiac arrest… I’m seeing brain death in people who haven’t lived their lives yet, whose brains haven’t even fully developed, brains that are literally killing themselves for drugs.”

My goal in sharing this information is that it will bring awareness to families and friends – and addicts – about why opioids are so pernicious and that we will begin to see those trapped in the addictive spell as individuals who really do want help. Learning what actual help is, as opposed to enabling the addiction, is a topic for another time.