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As the U.S. Opioid Crisis Rages On, Europe Continues to Hold Steady

If you were to rate the biggest health issues in the United States, you'd find that opioid drug addiction has become one of the most significant epidemics of our lifetime, by far. Yet, despite the well-publicized fact that the crisis has grown steadily over the past decade, the nations of Europe continue to function without experiencing any appreciable opioid-related issues.

The question arises: How can this be? A second question is: What can the U.S. learn from our attempts to deal with the problem thus far?

Examining the American Opioid Crisis

The origin of the American opioid crisis can be traced back to the end of the 20th century. Somewhere around the mid-to-late-1990s, large pharmaceutical companies began to produce massive amounts of opioids and to encourage healthcare providers to prescribe them for pain management.

These companies, hungry for profits, promised the majority of patients wouldn't become addicted and that opioids would be able to treat chronic pain effectively. Those claims have since been proved wrong.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that 1.7 million Americans suffer from substance use disorders related to prescription opioid pain relievers. An estimated 652,000 suffer from heroin user disorder (but the conditions aren't necessarily mutually exclusive).

Despite the fact that 21 to 29 percent of patients who are prescribed opioids misuse them -- and that 47,000 Americans die annually -- doctors continue to write prescriptions for millions of patients each year.

So the next time you hear the word "crisis" in conjunction with opioid abuse, don't assume it's just hyperbole. The epidemic is real, and it's had catastrophic reverberations throughout the fabric of the nation.

How Europe Avoided the Crisis

Despite the fear on the part of health authorities that this problem might migrate across the Atlantic to Europe, it hasn't happened yet. And it's unlikely to happen at this point.

Europe has avoided the crisis by thoughtful action that has worked, and doesn't appear likely to fail. Doctors and other health professionals across the European continent have been less influenced by pharmaceutical lobbyists and seem to have developed a more well-rounded perspective on pain management.

"Opioids provide important therapeutic options in bringing relief from acute and chronic pain," acknowledges Professor Bart Morlion, head of a multidisciplinary pain center in Belgium. "We should not re-stigmatize these analgesics, but instead clarify how they can be used safely and effectively.'"

To a degree, this is what most European countries have done. Opioids are employed sparingly and typically prescribed in lower dosages in conjunction with other natural treatments.

This offers a stark contrast to the "pill mills" of the U.S., where patients can essentially get a prescription for various controlled substances with very few questions asked.

What the U.S. Can Learn From European Nations

The U.S. and Europe have normally shared approaches and tactics in health care. Many American lawmakers and public health officials are studying European practices and looking for a model for lowering the impact of opioid abuse in the states.

Obviously, any solution to the opioid crisis begins and ends with how the drugs are prescribed, but it's just as important for the U.S. to implement effective addiction-treatment solutions ... which right now are few and far between.

"We have 20 million people in this country struggling with cancer, and we have centers of excellence to treat cancer in every major metropolis in the country," Dr. Anna Lembke states at InMyArea. "We have 20 to 40 million people, depending on how you count it, suffering from addiction, yet we have not a single real center of excellence the way that we do for cancer."

Perhaps America's healthcare system could learn from Portugal, which has 40-plus publicly funded drug treatment facilities that treat more than 4,000 addicts (free of charge). Though it's only a part of a larger plan, the focus on natural treatment has taken Portugal from Europe's most drug-addicted nation to one of the cleanest in the world.

Addicts need to know there's a way out, and doctors shouldn't feel pressured by drug manufacturers and pharmaceutical companies to continue prescribing opioids for pain management. As soon as the proper infrastructure is in place, the United States can begin to put a dent in this epidemic and enjoy more of the peace of mind that Europeans have experienced.

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