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Strike A Chord: Addiction #3 - On Ramps & Exposures

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As more and more people die from drug overdoses every year, the only thing that they all have in common is the use and abuse of a substance that eventually overwhelms the body.  Our Strike A Chord series this week will be looking at the addictions that underpin these deaths.

Americans Love Pills. So much so that we spent over 373 Billion dollars filling more than 4.3 billion prescriptions in 2014, according to QuintilesIMS a pharmaceutical consultant and lobby.

Dr. Daliah Heller, an investigator at the CUNY institute of implementation Science on Population Health says, "America has shown itself to have an insatiable appetite for psychoactive drugs. It's our history, right? But not just opioids, you know it's really important that we don't lose sight of this being about drugs, not opioids and opioids are driving the conversation. The data, the deaths."

For help understanding what takes us from an innocent looking prescription for chronic pain to a dangerous relationship with a substance+, we turn to Dr. Joseph Lee, medical director for the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. He describes the brain as a delicate economy. A system that loves to keep balance.

"So .... Imagine, for example, if you're in a hot tub for awhile and then I pull you out and then you enter swimming pool. You're gonna think that water in that and it's going full very, very cold. But it's actually not that cold and if you just stay in the water there's a recalibration process that occurs."

The same thing happens in your brain with pain meds as with heroin. So you end up needing more and more to satisfy the brain’s demand. The brain gets a higher tolerance for the drug, and at the same time a lower tolerance for pain. Add to that things like job or personal stress, financial pressures, trauma from accidents or military service… eventually the brain starts demanding those drugs. It's the demand, according to Dr. Heller, that is exacerbated by scarcity.  "[Eventually] you can't access them. You either you don't can't scrape the money up to buy them on the illicit market. ..., you don't have a doctor who's going to prescribe them to you. So then that's when people switch to heroin. Has that been the only kind of trajectory? Absolutely not."

But, Heller says, there are still plenty of people that initiate with heroin as well.

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