The Opioid Crisis

Man and woman holding hands.

Addressing the underpinnings of the opioid crisis – use and misuse of opioids, opioid use disorder, overdose deaths, and lack of effective pain management – is an urgent public health challenge in the United States. As the opioid crisis evolves, HEAL continues to support cutting-edge research approaches to speed scientific solutions to these challenges. The need is urgent:

  • More than 9 million Americans ages 12 and older misused opioids in the past year, and more than 5.5 million live with opioid use disorder.
  • More than 100,000 people have been dying annually from drug overdoses, and 75% of those deaths involve opioids (including highly potent synthetic opioids like fentanyl, often in combination with other drugs like stimulants).
  • Mental health conditions often occur alongside addiction and pain conditions; therefore, the nation’s mental health crisis has had a significant impact on pain and addiction.
  • Fifty million U.S. adults live with chronic pain, half of whom have severe pain every day. Nearly 20 million people suffer from pain that interferes with their daily lives.
  • Pain management strategies are often not accessible and inadequate.

About the Opioid Crisis

The drug overdose crisis began 40 years ago, driven by heroin and crack/cocaine use. In the 1990s, it shifted to prescription opioids due to widespread overprescribing of opioid medicines for pain relief. The public health crisis of poorly managed pain, opioid misuse, addiction, and overdose in America is now in its fourth wave: 

  • Prescription opioids were marketed aggressively to treat pain (1990s to 2000s).
  • Significant reductions in appropriate opioid prescribing occurred without safer alternatives to pain management.
  • Overdose deaths began to be driven by heroin (2010).
  • Synthetic opioids such as fentanyl flooded the illicit market and became the leading cause of overdose deaths beginning in 2016.
  • Overdose deaths involving co-use of stimulants such as methamphetamine and cocaine are on the rise and new threats continue to emerge.

As the drug landscape continues to change, solutions are needed more than ever to prevent and treat opioid misuse, opioid use disorder, and overdose.

As the continued challenges in management of complex and diverse pain conditions are exacerbated by the lack of effective pain therapies, solutions are needed to provide personalized and coordinated effective pain care.

Providing the scientific evidence that can help change health policy and practice for opioid use disorder, drug overdose, and pain management is the focus of HEAL research.

Read Research Spotlights about HEAL research on opioid use disorder and treatment.

Read Research Spotlights about HEAL research on pain management.