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The Opioid Crisis in the U.S: Death by Dopamine

The first step to fixing this crisis is understanding the scope of the problem and creating awareness. In order to fully grasp the extent and pervasiveness of this epidemic let’s start by looking at some statistics. In 2017 the National Safety Council registered around 40.000 vehicle deaths. Also in 2017, the C.D.C registered 70.000 drug overdose deaths. Out of that 70.000 around 47.000 were exclusively due to, and I stress this, opioid overdose.

Let that sink in.

In 2017 more people died from opioid overdoses than from car crashes.

How is this possible?
Before tackling the problem we have to answer a few questions first. What exactly are opioids? How do they work? Why is it so common to overdose while using opioids? What can we do?

In the human body, there are a few very special nerve cells located in the brain, spinal cord, an intestinal tract. These cells contain opioid receptors. Opioid receptors are responsible for receiving and managing pain signals, as well as producing dopamine. Dopamine, contrary to popular belief, isn’t the ‘pleasure chemical’ but rather a more nuanced chemical: it incentivizes repeating certain actions that were at some point rewarded. For example, a gambler may win very few times, but whether he wins or loses, he still gets the same dopamine rush.

So in short: there are opioids, opioids receptors, and dopamine. But how does it all tie together?

After you perform certain actions the brain releases opioids. These are then sent to specialized nerve cells, opioids receptors. Once there, the opioid receptors block pain signals and dopamine is released. Simple, right?

Now onto the problem: WHen you ingest opioids you skip straight to the release of dopamine. This may not seem an issue, but when your brain starts associating the very action of ingesting opioids to the release of dopamine we can begin to see how the problem can easily compound and spiral out of control. Now couple this with the aesthetic properties of opioids and the tolerance your body is gradually building, and suddenly overdosing is much closer than it seemed a few minutes ago.

Let’s look at some more statistics: In the U.S out of a hundred patients, between 25 to 30 misuse opioid prescriptions. Of those 30, 3 develop opioid use disorders and 1 transition to stronger opioids such as heroin.

What can we do?
By its very nature developing opioid addiction is a biochemical reaction, and can happen to anyone. in the U.S 80 percent of people addicted to opioids started with a prescription, and some people don’t even realize they’re addicted until the treatment ends. The first and most important step we can take is to spread awareness about the dangers of abusing opioids, set guidelines or limits on opioids prescriptions through legislation, and promote the development of alternatives.

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