Chasing the Dragon — America’s Struggle With Opioid Addiction

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April 15, 2017 | 215,831 views

Story at-a-glance

  • The documentary “Chasing the Dragon” reveals the troubling reality of Americans caught in the clutches of drug abuse, particularly prescribed opioids such as OxyContin and Vicodin, as well as street drugs like heroin
  • In 2015, 52,404 Americans died from drug overdoses; 33,091 of them involved an opioid and nearly one-third of them, 15,281, were by prescription
  • Opiates such as fentanyl, hydrocodone, morphine and oxycodone kill more Americans each year than car crashes or gun violence

By Dr. Mercola

If you or someone you know is hooked on prescription drugs such as Oxycontin and Vicodin, or street drugs like heroin, you'll connect with "Chasing the Dragon," a raw 2016 documentary about the horrors of drug addiction.

Produced by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the film features ordinary Americans sharing personal stories of danger and destruction that characterized their lives prior to recovery from hard-core drug addiction.

Because the documentary is filled with harsh language and disturbing images, parental discretion is advised.

In 2015, 52,404 Americans died from drug overdoses; 33,091 of them involved an opioid and nearly one third of them, 15,281, were by prescription.1,2,3 Meanwhile, kidney disease, listed as the 9th leading cause of death on the CDC's top 10 list, killed 48,146.4

The CDC does not include drug overdoses on this list, but if you did, drug overdoses (63 percent of which are opioids), would replace kidney disease as the 9th leading cause of death as of 2015.

Many of those featured in "Chasing the Dragon" are regular people from good homes and loving families. The one characteristic they had in common while using was a feeling of powerlessness to escape the spiraling cycle of drug use and abuse that dominated every moment of their lives.

One recovering addict, a woman named Melissa, had this to say about her drug use: "It became my full-time job. The needle was my boss — a very demanding boss."

To prevent you or someone you love from becoming addicted to prescription painkillers, I'd like to take a closer look at opioid abuse and offer several healthy alternatives to help you manage pain.

How Bad Is Prescription Drug Abuse in the US?

A 2015 study5 suggested 1 in 4 Americans who use opioid painkillers become addicted to them. Despite the drugs' high risk of addiction, a 2016 NPR health poll6 indicated less than one-third of people said they questioned or refused their doctor's prescription for opioids.

Dr. Leana Wen, emergency physician and health commissioner for the city of Baltimore, recommends you discuss with your doctor any concerns you may have about receiving a prescription for narcotics.

Due to their highly addictive potential, it's important, she says, to ensure such drugs are your best and only option:7

"Ask why. Often other alternatives, like not [taking] anything at all, taking an ibuprofen or Tylenol, physical therapy or something else can be effective. Asking 'why' is something every patient and provider should do."

Wen's concerns are well placed. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC),8 2 million Americans abused or were dependent on opioids in 2014.

On average, more than 1,000 of them land in emergency rooms every day as the result of abuse or misuse of prescription painkillers.

"There's very little difference between oxycodone, morphine and heroin," says Dr. Deeni Bassam, board-certified anesthesiologist, pain specialist and medical director of the Virginia-based Spine Care Center. "It's just that one comes in a prescription bottle and another one comes in a plastic bag."9

Bassam, whose views on drug addiction are presented throughout "Chasing the Dragon," believes most drug dependency starts innocuously:10

"A friend offers you something at a party or at home. Or you're having a bad day, and you need something to pick you up, so somebody hands you a pill and says, 'Here, this will help you feel better.' That's how this problem always starts."

Deborah Taylor, senior vice president and executive director of Phoenix House Mid-Atlantic, a nonprofit drug and alcohol rehabilitation organization operating in 10 U.S. states, notes:11

"The progression of addiction and the behavior that comes with it is pretty standard regardless of where you're born, how much money you have, how old you are and your race or nationality.

You can be the smartest person in the world — and the minute that chemical hits your bloodstream, you lose control of what it does in your body. You can't control it. Nobody can control it. I don't care who you are. It's not controllable."

From Prescription Opioids to Street Drugs

The transition from prescription opioids to street drugs like heroin is a relatively easy one. When a prescription runs out, the cost to renew it becomes unmanageable or a physician refuses to renew a prescription, many addicts look for other options.

Heroin, which is often cheaper and easier to obtain than opioids, is a popular alternative. Chemically, the drugs are very similar and provide a similar kind of high. Without additives, heroin is as dangerous as Oxycontin and equally addictive. However, when dealers cut heroin with other drugs, the results can be deadly.

According to the Chicago Tribune,12 in just six days during August 2016, a staggering 174 heroin overdoses took place in Cincinnati, Ohio, a city that records, on average, 20 to 25 overdoses a week.

The Tribune13 claims the unprecedented number of overdoses was precipitated by heroin cut with carfentanil, a drug originally developed as a tranquilizer for large animals such as elephants. Cut into heroin, it was meant to deliver a stronger and more extended high, which would presumably keep users coming back to buy more.

Instead, it resulted in a string of overdoses and deaths that left law enforcement begging local citizens to not buy heroin until the ultra-potent batch was off the streets. Their advice made sense considering carfentanil is 10,000 to 100,000 times stronger than morphine.

About the overdoses, Newtown police chief Tom Synan, who is also leader of the law enforcement task force for the Hamilton County Heroin Coalition, said:14

"[Dealers] are intentionally putting in drugs they know can kill someone. The benefit for them is if the user survives it is such a powerful high for them, they tend to come back …

If one or two people die, they could care less. They know the supply is so big right now that if you lose some customers, in their eyes there's always more in line."

Treating Your Pain Without Drugs

Prior to leaving office in January 2017, U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioner Dr. Robert Califf addressed the devastating effects of opioid misuse, suggesting it's time to find better ways to treat pain:15

"The public-health crisis of opioid misuse, addiction and overdose is one of the most challenging issues [the FDA] has faced during my time as commissioner. Solving this issue is critical to our future.

It's time to put more resources into the development of non-opioid, non-addictive medications to help people who are in serious, debilitating pain. We need more research to define the most effective non-medication approaches to pain, and how to deliver them …"

Califf is right; we do need better ways to manage pain. Fortunately, many natural alternatives already exist. While not everyone who takes a prescription opioid will wind up an addict, the risk is real. For that reason, I strongly recommend exhausting the many natural alternatives before you resort to an opioid pain reliever. The health risks associated with those drugs are great, and addiction and overdose happen far more often than you may realize.

It's particularly important for you to avoid opioids when trying to address long-term chronic pain, as your body will create a tolerance to the drug. Over time, you'll require greater doses at more frequent intervals to achieve the same pain relief. This is a recipe for disaster and could have lethal consequences. Please don't risk it!

Due to the many concerns around addiction and tolerance, opioids clearly have not lived up to the promises manufacturers have made. With so much focus on pharmaceutical remedies, you may not be aware of the many healthy alternatives to pain relief. Following is information about non-drug remedies, dietary changes and bodywork interventions that can help you manage your pain.

Non-Drug Remedies for Pain Relief

If you have chronic pain of any kind, please understand there are many natural, safe and effective alternatives to prescription and over-the-counter painkillers, including:

Kratom

Kratom (Mitragyna speciosa) is another plant remedy that has become a popular opioid substitute.16 In August, the DEA issued a notice saying it was planning to ban kratom, listing it as Schedule 1 controlled substance. However, following massive outrage from kratom users who say opioids are their only alternative, the agency reversed its decision.17

Kratom is likely safer than an opioid for someone in serious and chronic pain. However, it's important to recognize that it is a psychoactive substance and should not be used carelessly. There's very little research showing how to use it safely and effectively, and it may have a very different effect from one person to the next.

Also, while it may be useful for weaning people off opioids, kratom is in itself addictive. So, while it appears to be a far safer alternative to opioids, it's still a powerful and potentially addictive substance. So please, do your own research before trying it.

Low-Dose Naltrexone (LDN)

Naltrexone is an opiate antagonist, originally developed in the early 1960s for the treatment of opioid addiction. When taken at very low doses (LDN, available only by prescription), it triggers endorphin production, which can boost your immune function and ease pain.

Curcumin

A primary therapeutic compound identified in the spice turmeric, curcumin has been shown in more than 50 clinical studies to have potent anti-inflammatory activity. Curcumin is hard to absorb, so best results are achieved with preparations designed to improve absorption. It is very safe and you can take two to three every hour if you need to.

Astaxanthin

One of the most effective oil-soluble antioxidants known, astaxanthin has very potent anti-inflammatory properties. Higher doses are typically required for pain relief, and you may need 8 milligrams or more per day to achieve results.

Boswellia

Also known as boswellin or "Indian frankincense," this herb contains powerful anti-inflammatory properties, which have been prized for thousands of years. This is one of my personal favorites, as it worked well for many of my former rheumatoid arthritis patients.

Bromelain

This protein-digesting enzyme, found in pineapples, is a natural anti-inflammatory. It can be taken in supplement form, but eating fresh pineapple may also be helpful. Keep in mind most of the bromelain is found within the core of the pineapple, so consider eating some of the pulpy core when you consume the fruit.

Cayenne cream

Also called capsaicin cream, this spice comes from dried hot peppers. It alleviates pain by depleting your body's supply of substance P, a chemical component of nerve cells that transmit pain signals to your brain.

Cetyl myristoleate (CMO)

This oil, found in dairy butter and fish, acts as a joint lubricant and anti-inflammatory. I have used a topical preparation of CMO to relieve ganglion cysts and a mild case of carpal tunnel syndrome.

Evening primrose, black currant and borage oils

These oils contain the fatty acid gamma-linolenic acid, which is useful for treating arthritic pain.

Ginger

This herb is anti-inflammatory and offers pain relief and stomach-settling properties. Fresh ginger works well steeped in boiling water as a tea, or incorporated into fresh vegetable juice.

Dietary Changes to Fight Inflammation and Manage Your Pain

Unfortunately, physicians often fall short when attempting to effectively treat chronic pain, resorting to the only treatment they know: prescription drugs. While these drugs may bring some temporary relief, they will do nothing to resolve the underlying causes of your pain. If you suffer from chronic pain, making the following changes to your diet may bring you some relief.

Consume more animal-based omega-3 fats. Similar to the effects of anti-inflammatory pharmaceutical drugs, omega-3 fats from fish and fish oils work to directly or indirectly modulate a number of cellular activities associated with inflammation.

While drugs have a powerful ability to inhibit your body's pain signals, omega-3s cause a gentle shift in cell signaling to bring about a lessened reactivity to pain.

Eating healthy seafood like anchovies or sardines, which are low in environmental toxins, or taking a high-quality supplement such as krill oil are your best options for obtaining omega-3s. DHA and EPA, the omega-3 oils contained in krill oil, have been found in many animal and clinical studies to have anti-inflammatory properties, which are beneficial for pain relief.

Radically reduce your intake of processed foods. Processed foods not only contain chemical additives and excessive amounts of sugar, but also are loaded with damaging omega-6 fats. By eating these foods, especially fried foods, you upset your body's ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty-acids, which triggers inflammation. Inflammation is a key factor in most pain.

Eliminate or radically reduce your consumption of grains and sugars. Avoiding grains and sugars, especially fructose, will lower your insulin and leptin levels. Elevated insulin and leptin levels are one of the most profound stimulators of inflammatory prostaglandin production, which contributes to pain.

While healthy individuals are advised to keep their daily fructose consumption below 25 grams from all sources, you'll want to limit your intake to 15 grams per day until your pain is reduced. Eating sugar increases your uric acid levels, which leads to chronic, low-level inflammation.

Optimize your production of vitamin D. As much as possible, regulate your vitamin D levels by regularly exposing large amounts of your skin to sunshine. If you cannot get sufficient sun exposure, taking an oral vitamin D3 supplement, along with vitamin K2 and magnesium, is highly advisable.

Research by GrassrootsHealth suggests adults need about 8,000 IUs per day to achieve a serum level of 40 ng/ml, but you may need even more. It's best to get your blood level tested to be sure you're safely within the therapeutic range.

Bodywork Methods That Reduce Pain

Due to the inherent risks of addiction and the other unpleasant side effects of prescription painkillers, I recommend you pursue one or more of the following bodywork methods before taking a narcotic for pain. Each one has been demonstrated to be an effective treatment for lasting pain relief and management.

Acupuncture: According to The New York Times,18 an estimated 3 million American adults receive acupuncture annually, most often for the treatment of chronic pain. A study19 published in the Archives of Internal Medicine concluded acupuncture has a definite effect in reducing four types of chronic pain, including back and neck pain, chronic headache, osteoarthritis and shoulder pain — more so than standard pain treatment. The researchers stated:

"[W]e found acupuncture to be superior to both no-acupuncture control and sham acupuncture for the treatment of chronic pain … Our results from individual patient data meta-analyses of nearly 18,000 patients in high-quality randomized controlled trials provide the most robust evidence to date that acupuncture is a reasonable referral option for patients with chronic pain."

Chiropractic adjustments: While previously used most often to treat back pain, chiropractic treatment addresses many other problems — including asthma, carpal tunnel syndrome, fibromyalgia, headaches, migraines, musculoskeletal pain, neck pain and whiplash.

According to a study20 published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, patients with neck pain who used a chiropractor and/or exercise were more than twice as likely to be pain-free in 12 weeks compared to those who took medication.

Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT): EFT continues to be one of the easiest and most effective ways to deal with acute and chronic pain. The technique is simple and can be applied in mere minutes, helping you to overcome all kinds of bodily aches and pains. A study21 published in Energy Psychology examined the levels of pain in a group of 50 people attending a three-day EFT workshop, and found their pain dropped by 43 percent during the workshop.

Six weeks later, their pain levels were reported to be 42 percent lower than before the workshop. As a result of applying EFT, participants felt they had an improved sense of control and ability to cope with their chronic pain. In the video featured below, EFT expert Julie Schiffman, teaches you how to use EFT to address chronic pain.

Massage: Massage releases endorphins, which help induce relaxation, relieve pain and reduce levels of stress chemicals such as cortisol and noradrenaline. A systematic review and meta-analysis22 published in the journal Pain Medicine, included 60 high-quality and seven low-quality studies that looked into the use of massage for various types of pain, including bone and muscle, fibromyalgia, headache and spinal-cord pain.

The study revealed massage therapy relieves pain better than getting no treatment at all. When compared to other pain treatments like acupuncture and physical therapy, massage therapy still proved beneficial and had few side effects. In addition to relieving pain, massage therapy also improved anxiety and health-related quality of life.

Final Thoughts About 'Chasing the Dragon'

With respect to "Chasing the Dragon," U.S. FBI director James Comey said:23

"This film may be difficult to watch, but we hope it educates our students and young adults about the tragic consequences that come with abusing these drugs, and it will cause people to think twice before becoming its next victim."

Every generation has its drug of choice, and Bassam suggests this generation's drug of choice is prescription opiates, which is far more devastating and addictive than anything law enforcement and the medical community have seen in the past. The current level of drug addiction in the U.S. is real and dangerous, says Bassam:24

"How do you know you're an addict? It's when you're doing something you know is not good for you, that's harming you, but you can't help yourself. When your relationships are starting to fall apart around you, and you don't care. When the only thing on your mind is how to get the substance and how to get to the next high — you're an addict. You can't maintain an opiate addiction and a normal life for very long."

If someone you know is at risk for or is presently struggling with drug addiction, this raw and realistic documentary is worth your time.

[+]Sources and References [-]Sources and References

  • 1 CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report December 30, 2016 / 65(50-51);1445–1452
  • 2 CDC Prescription Opioid Overdose Data
  • 3 Washington Post April 2, 2017
  • 4 CDC.gov Leading Causes of Death 2015
  • 5 Addiction 2010 Oct; 105(10): 1776-82
  • 6, 7 NPR March 3, 2017
  • 8 U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Prescription Opioid Overdose Data
  • 9 Epoch Times, September 27, 2016
  • 10, 11, 24 Chasing the Dragon 2016
  • 12, 13, 14 Chicago Tribune August 29, 2016
  • 15 U.S. Food and Drug Administration January 19, 2017
  • 16 Current Topics in Medicinal Chemistry 2011;11(9):1165-75
  • 17 Washington Post October 12, 2016
  • 18 The New York Times September 11, 2012
  • 19 Archives of Internal Medicine 2012 Oct 22; 172(19): 1444-53
  • 20 Annals of Internal Medicine January 3, 2012; 156(1-Part 1): 1-10
  • 21 Energy Psychology November 2015
  • 22 Pain Medicine 2016; 17(7): 1353-1375
  • 23 U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation February 4, 2016