How the Opioid Epidemic Can Impact Your Nursing Career


According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than 130 people in the U.S. die every day from overdosing on opioids. Misuse and addiction include prescription pain relievers such as Oxycontin, as well as street drugs, such as heroin and synthetic opioid such as Fentanyl. This serious national epidemic affects economic welfare, public health, and social welfare. The CDC estimates the total financial burden of misuse of prescription opioids is $78.5 billion each year.

Since the drugs are highly addictive, the National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates up to 29% who have prescribed opioids for chronic pain will misuse them and an estimated 6% will then transition to heroin. According to the World Health Organization, there were an estimated 27 million who suffer from an opioid use disorder in 2016, and the numbers are only growing. Statistics have demonstrated no one is immune. The addiction crosses gender, race and socioeconomic lines and the best approach to preventing an overdose, is to prevent abuse.

Prescription opioids were designed for use at end of life to take care of pain when the fear of addiction was not in question. Unfortunately, pharmaceutical companies spent years reassuring physicians prescription opioids were not addictive and so they began prescribing in large doses to those with chronic pain or experiencing dental work. This advertising campaign led to an epidemic of individuals who became addicted to the powerful prescription.

Opioid addiction may affect patients or the nursing staff, and will severely limit an individual’s’ ability to function appropriately. Signs of abuse include poor coordination, constipation, agitation, poor decision-making, and mood swings. Those abusing opioids, or street drugs like heroin or synthetic Fentanyl, may exhibit depression, irritability, lower motivation and anxiety attacks.

As a medical professional it is essential you watch for signs of opioid addiction in your teammates, your patients and yourself. Physicians commonly prescribed these drugs for injuries, following surgeries, chronic conditions or after dental procedures. Since pain after injuries, chronic conditions or surgery may require long-term care, addiction may follow. The process may sneak up gradually and can ruin your professional career.

The death toll from opioids total 33,000 Americans in 2015 and rose to 42,250 in 2016. Addiction has affected more than 25% of those who use the medication for non-cancer pain. Before considering the use of opioids for chronic non-cancer pain, ask the question if you would consider using heroin for a toothache or backache since opioid prescriptions are chemically similar to heroin. Years of misconception about these medications has led to hundreds of thousands of deaths and destroyed the lives of countless more.

As you evaluate your patients on a daily basis, consider whether they may be struggling with withdrawal from an opioid or heroin addiction. Ensure any patient being discharged with an opioid prescription has the proper education and knowledge about addiction and how easily it can occur. Encourage your patients to taper off opioid medications as quickly as possible. If you or a teammate is suffering from opioid addiction, seek help immediately.

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