How the Opioid Crisis Has Changed

By Roger Chriss, Columnist

The CDC recently released its first annual “Surveillance Report of Drug-Related Risks and Outcomes,” a lengthy and data filled study that documents the changing nature of the opioid crisis. Much attention is paid to declining rates of opioid prescribing, rising rates of heroin and fentanyl overdoses, and the increasing number of multiple or “poly-drug” overdoses.

According to the report, efforts to rein in opioid prescribing have succeeded in ways that are often not recognized:

  • Opioid prescriptions fell 4.9% each year between 2012 and 2016.
  • High-dose opioid prescriptions (above 90 MME) dropped 9.3% annually from 2009 to 2016.
  • In 2016, there were 66.5 opioid prescriptions per 100 persons, down from 72.4 opioid prescriptions per 100 persons in 2006.

Much of this decline came before the release of the 2016 CDC opioid guidelines and subsequent efforts by state governments, health insurers, and drug store chains like CVS to reduce prescribing.

In 2016, opioid prescribing in the U.S. was at about three times the level of 1999 -- still high, but  down from the peak of four times the 1999 level. At the current rate of reduction, we will reach twice the 1999 level sometime next year and be back to 1999 levels by early 2021 at the latest. Ongoing moves by regulators and insurers to reduce opioid prescribing may accelerate this process.

Clearly, as the report states and many pain patients already know, healthcare providers are “becoming more cautious in their opioid prescribing practices.”

Tragically, similar success is lacking in the overdose crisis.

In 2015, the most recent year covered in the report, 52,404 people died of drug overdoses. About 63% of those deaths involved an illicit or prescription opioid, with heroin being the most common cause in 12,989 deaths. The other 37% of deaths involved non-opioids such as cocaine and methamphetamines. Over 5,000 deaths were identified as suicides and nearly 3,000 were identified as having undetermined intent.

The CDC report estimates that about 2 million people are addicted to prescription opioids and nearly 600,000 Americans are addicted to heroin. These numbers have remained largely unchanged since 2012, meaning that there has been little if any progress in preventing opioid addiction.

Limits on opioid prescribing have also not resulted in fewer deaths. Overdose fatalities are still rising sharply, mostly because of heroin and illicit fentanyl.

"Prescription opioid pain relievers were formerly driving the crisis, but by 2015 they shared equal measure with heroin, synthetic opioids other than methadone (mostly illicit fentanyl), and – increasingly-- cocaine and methamphetamines,” the report found.

In the two years since 2015, the final year for overdose data in the report, drug deaths have spiked higher. In 2016 there were 63,632 fatal overdoses and the early analysis for 2017 suggests the numbers are even worse. The handful of states that are seeing a decrease in drug deaths are attributing it largely to the increased use of naloxone to revive overdose victims.

Also alarming is that in 2015, around 33 percent of heroin users had initiated use with that drug rather than with opioid analgesics or some other substance. And heroin, illicit fentanyl, and virtually every other drug are now readily available on darknet markets.

At present, overdose rates are rising for virtually every major class of drug. The only class of drug that has seen a drop is prescription opioids.  

The opioid crisis is real, though as the CDC report shows, it is fast becoming an overdose crisis driven primarily by more potent and risky street drugs. Opioid medication is just one of many substances involved and its role is decreasing.

The CDC report concludes ominously: “Additional measures are now urgently needed to address a diverse and evolving array of drug types.”

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Roger Chriss lives with Ehlers Danlos syndrome and is a proud member of the Ehlers-Danlos Society. Roger is a technical consultant in Washington state, where he specializes in mathematics and research.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.