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Civilization's Painkiller: A Brief History of Opioids

Civilization's Painkiller: A Brief History of Opioids

Egyptians gather opium from poppy plants, circa 1900. LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

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So civilization has been using these drugs for over 5000 years. 

3400 B.C. The opium poppy is first cultivated in lower Mesopotamia. Named Hul Gil or the “Joy Plant” by the Sumerians, the plant was known to produce euphoric effects through the collection of poppy juice (opium latex, the "white milk" from the plant, which contains the naturally-occurring analgesic alkaloid morphine) in making opium.

And yet, addiction is now worse than ever.

1990s. Pain management changes in the 1990s, when physicians begin prescribing more opioids after noticing that pain is generally undertreated. To make up for opiophobia before, however, doctors begin prescribing a little too much morphine, fentanyl, oxycodone and hydromorphone well into the 2000s, triggering the new opioid and heroin epidemic.

2011. The Obama administration announces it must deal with what it calls an “epidemic of prescription drug abuse.” 

2016. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) releases its Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain, hoping to curb the over-prescription of painkillers by doctors across the country. Today, over 165,000 Americans have died from prescription painkiller-related overdoses since 1999, and new research shows that the majority of patients given opioids end up with leftovers after their treatment plans.

While heroin and drug abuse in general has decreased in many European countries, in the U.S., the opioid epidemic has reached an all-time high. Since 1999, prescription opioid deaths have quadrupled, and the number of prescriptions given out has also quadrupled, according to the CDC. While there is yet no solution to the growing problem, the CDC guidelines aim to curb overprescriptions and encourage physicians to be more discerning when treating chronic pain.

The ultimate spoiler for opioid addiction is (sorry, Mom!) constipation. If you're not a stone addict, constipation is a side effect that is so awful you won't take the medication for more than a couple days.

Which tells us just how addicted the addicts truly are that they're willing to put up with that side effect.

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