2020 was a difficult year for many – with the unforeseen COVID-19 pandemic wrecking havoc all around the world. As the pandemic finally starts to slow down in 2021, it seems that COVID-19 will soon become a problem of the past. However, amid the final sprint of the COVID-19 pandemic has arisen fears of a new health emergency – the resurgence of the opioid crisis.
How did the opioid crisis start?
The opioid crisis first caught the attention of global health experts in the late 1990s, when record high numbers of prescription opioid related deaths were recorded. Since then, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 500,000 people have died from an overdose involving opioid drugs, a part of which is made up by prescription drugs.
Opioids have traditionally been used as a pain relief and management medication – prescribed to patients suffering from cancer related pains, as well as autoimmune concerns. However, over time, opioid drugs were overprescribed to patients whose pains did not require them.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, this was due to the reassurance from pharmaceuticals that opioid drugs were effective, as well as the overall lack of knowledge surrounding the addictive qualities of opioids.
As more research surrounding the addictive nature of opioids emerges, countries around the world are making initiatives to prevent the over prescription of opioid drugs, resulting in less cases of drug overdose and misuse.
According to the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse, these initiatives include:
- Increasing access to opioid addiction treatment and recovery services
- Promoting public awareness and understanding of the opioid crisis through improved public health surveillance
- Increasing research and promotion of other pain management strategies and practices, including manual therapy.
Research data has shown that such initiatives have seen a degree of international success, with the number of opioid prescriptions decreasing by 40% between 2013 and 2017 in the US, according to a study published in the U.S. National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. However, with the chaos that coronavirus has brought to the health space in 2020 coronavirus, many experts are now expressing concerns over the resurgence of the opioid epidemic.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the opioid epidemic?
According to an article published by the UNSW Research Centre, COVID-19 has led to increased social isolation, resulting in a lower number of individuals attending face-to-face healthcare appointments. Building upon this finding, new research has also determined that social distancing has isolated vulnerable patients, leaving them more likely to misuse prescription and/or illicit drugs (including opioids).
In addition, due to the unavailability of elective surgeries and other healthcare procedures, opioid usage is predicted to increase during the pandemic. Some experts warn that without adequate barriers initiated to control the refilling and prescribing of controlled substances for patient pains (such as opioids), the opioid crisis may return.
During such ambiguous times, it may be crucial for the healthcare community to research and increase recommendations for alternative methods of pain management to prevent the opioid crisis from taking the wrong turn. Although all forms of treatment have their place, manual therapies such as massage, chiropractic and acupuncture may start to grow popular as alternative care for non-cancer related chronic pain – amidst concerns of the resurgence of the opioid crisis.