Editorial: Opioid war has many fronts

York Dispatch
  • Prescription painkillers are often a gateway to heroin.
  • More than 90 Americans die every day of an opioid overdose.
  • New methods of addressing this epidemic are happening on many fronts.

The statistics tell the story.

An estimated 2 million people in the U.S. are addicted to prescription opioids, and an average of 91 Americans die every day from an overdose of those painkillers or their illegal counterpart, heroin, according to a recent Associated Press report on new options for pain management.

Recovering addict John Sprow, of York City, speaks of his recovery from heroin addiction during the Not One More York Chapter Bob Glatfelter Memorial Walk and Overdose Awareness Vigil York College campus in York, Saturday, Oct. 15, 2016. Dawn J. Sagert photo

A study earlier this year in the New England Journal of Medicine found that  for every 48 patients prescribed opioids in a hospital emergency room, one of them will continue taking opioids for at least six months over the next year.

Of course, the longer a patient is taking opioids, the greater the likelihood they will become addicted.

The latest on the war against opioid addiction finds research and hospital policy focused on the way health care professionals treat pain.

We believe that approaching addiction as the health care crisis it is — as opposed to adopting a solely criminal perspective — means lives not lost can be regained.

Overcoming Opioids: When pills are a hospital’s last resort

This delicate strategy can be a challenge, because there also are  patients for whom painkillers bring necessary relief for chronic pain.

The AP reports some doctors are discovering an added benefit of cutting back or even eliminating opioids. At the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, a program called “enhanced recovery after surgery” is getting some patients home two to four days faster following major abdominal operations, using non-opioid painkillers that are gentler on the digestive tract.

“Our patients are very afraid of pain, especially the patients with a history of opioid addiction,” said Dr. Jennifer Holder-Murray, a UPMC colorectal surgeon who helped start the program. “When they come back to me and tell me they didn’t even fill their opioid prescription, that’s a remarkable experience.”

The approach involves mixing medications and techniques — nerve blocks, spinal anesthesia and numbing lidocaine — and attacking pain “from multiple directions, rather than depending solely on opioids.”

Health care professionals who advocate for new ways of dealing with pain agree if they are to take hold, there must be a culture change, a new way of thinking about traditional pain management.

'Warm handoff' for overdose victims praised at York Hospital

Attacking the opioid crisis from different angles is what might ultimately stem the steady tide of overdose deaths, which don’t discriminate based on socioeconomic, educational and other factors. Those who think someone they love couldn’t possibly be affected are sadly mistaken. Prescription opioids are one path that allows for those with no prior experience with drugs to become snared in addiction’s trap.

With ever-increasing political will to tackle the opioid epidemic from many angles, a new age of addiction health care can begin, hopefully, to reverse the troubling trend.