In the past two years, there has been a vast increase in documented cases of misuse of prescription drugs. While stimulants used to treat attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and central nervous system (CNS) depressants used to treat anxiety continue to be abused, nothing compares to the misuse of opioids, which is leading to a nationwide epidemic. According to the Department of Health and Human Services, opioid overdoses accounted for more than 42,000 deaths in 2016.

While prescription opioids are used to treat moderate to severe pain in both surgical and non-surgical patients, these medications are abused for various non-medical reasons. These include: relieving tension, curiosity/experimentation, getting “high”, countering the effects of other drugs, and help with sleep. Individuals who consume opiates over an extended period of time can develop a tolerance, requiring them to take more of these drugs to elicit the same effect. This can lead to addiction and increase the risk of overdose and death.

Hospitals and healthcare providers are now taking a new approach to tackle the opioid epidemic. Fewer opioid medications are being prescribed, in favor of other non-opioid medications, such as Tylenol, Motrin and gabapentin. Patients undergoing surgical procedures are now being prepared for realistic expectations of post surgical pain. Some institutions are even taking a multidisciplinary approach to combating prescription opioids, encompassing the assistance of psychologists to help patients deal with the impact of pain.

As Certified Registered Nurse Anesthetists and Anesthesiologists, what can we do to stop this increasing epidemic of opioid abuse? Some options include non-opioid medications, ultrasound-guided peripheral nerve blocks, and patient education. It’s also important for us to stay educated on new procedures and trends that can improve the lives of our patients, now and in the future.