Opioid addiction is a rampant problem nationwide. More than two million people are addicted to these powerful painkillers, and more than 25,000 people die from overdoses each year, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It’s a major public health issue with complex ramifications.

How these addictions get started

The opioid problem is challenging to address because so many patients have a legitimate need for painkillers. What starts out as a prescription for pain management soon turns into an addiction. When patients can no longer get the painkillers legally, they turn to the black market, ending up with even more potent drugs (such as heroin or fentanyl) that are more likely to cause deadly overdoses.

How doctors can help curb the problem

Public health advocates are turning to the source of the problem – doctor’s offices – to stem the tide of addiction. Many doctors are far too quick to prescribe habit-forming painkillers such as morphine, Vicodin and OxyContin. Patient education is also lacking. Without adequate time or resources to properly screen patients and warn them about the risk of addiction, doctors are sometimes powerless to keep painkiller use in check.

Also problematic is the absence of other realistic options for pain management. Many insurance companies won’t fully cover alternative therapies such as massage, acupuncture and physical therapy. As a result, physicians are quicker to make the leap to painkillers.

Steps in the right direction

Broader public awareness of opioid addiction has led to several concrete steps in the right direction. In Pennsylvania – where rates of opioid overdose exceed the national average – doctors are required to run checks in a statewide database to identify patients who may be getting prescriptions from multiple sources. This database better equips doctors to avoid overprescribing.

The CDC has also published guidelines for prescribing opioids. Although they’re voluntary and geared toward primary care providers, in outlining evidence-based standards, they can serve as a valuable tool for prescribers and patients alike.