Last Updated on September 2, 2022 by Dr. Alberto Solà

Just how serious is the American opioid addiction? Here is a look at our opioid addiction crisis on the numbers.

About opioids

  • Opioids are a type of drugs. They include heroin, which is illegal, but they are also the legal prescription drugs codeine, fentanyl, hydrocodone, morphine, oxycodone, and others.
  • Opioids and opioid receptors on the brain’s neurons are chemically related. They fit together like puzzle pieces, causing the pain relief some painkillers are prescribed for—but also more general pleasurable effects.

About opioid addiction

  • Addiction is a chronic brain disease. It is characterized by the pathological pursuit of substances that provide pain relief or similar rewards in the brain.
  • In 2015, there were 20.5 million people age 12 or older in the US that had a substance use disorder. 2 million of them—about 10%—were addicted to prescription pain killers, and 122,000 of those 2 million were children. Around 591,000 of the 20.5 million addicts were addicted to heroin—about 5,000 of them children.
  • Experts estimate that 23% of heroin users become addicted to opioids.

A national opioid epidemic

  • In 2015, there were about 52,404 fatal drug overdoses in the US. There were more than 60,000 in 2016.
  • Drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death among Americans.
  • Addiction to opioids is fueling this problem; in 2015, heroin and prescription pain relievers caused more than 63% of all overdose deaths in the US.
  • Between 1999 and 2008, three trends increased at the same time, in tandem with each other:
    • sales of prescription painkillers were four times higher in 2010 than they were in 1999;
    • admission rates into substance use disorder treatment in 2009 was six times higher than in 1999; and
    • the overdose death rate was almost four times higher in 2008 than it was in 1999.
  • At about the same time, the rate at which doctors prescribed opioids to adolescents and young adults almost doubled.
  • Why did these trends grow like that? Because of the connections between prescription opioids and heroin:
    • 259 million prescriptions for opioids were written in 2012;
    • The prescription is often the beginning of the cycle of addiction; and
    • That many prescriptions are more than enough for every single adult in the US to have their own bottle of painkillers.
  • 4 out of 5 new heroin users abused prescription pain pills first.
  • A 2014 survey of patients being treated for opioid addiction found that 94% used heroin because prescription opioids were “far more expensive and harder to obtain.”

What’s happening now?

  • Americans still consume more opioids than any other nation.
  • Research released in 2018 shows, “Opioid prevention and treatment efforts in the United States remain constrained and consequently stigmatized by a legacy of federal restrictions, an unwillingness to acknowledge idiopathic addiction, and a lack of science-based interventions for chronic pain.”