Brain injuries are one more toll of the opioid crisis

The country’s opioid crisis has resulted in an increase in brain injuries in people who have survived drug overdoses.

One little-talked-about result of the country’s opioid crisis is an increase in brain injuries in people who have survived drug overdoses.

That’s the case in New Hampshire where close to 4,000 people were revived from drug overdoses using the lifesaving drug Narcan during 2014 and 2015, according to a report in the Concord Monitor.

While people may think that drug users either are revived with Narcan and are fine or die, there is a middle ground where if not revived quickly enough, people suffer brain damage caused by a lack of oxygen.

“There are people who fall in this horrible middle. We see people with lots of different levels of disability from it,” Frederick Bruch, M.D., chief medical officer at Crotched Mountain Specialty Hospital in Greenfield, New Hampshire, which focuses on brain injury rehabilitation, told the newspaper.

The hospital has definitely seen an increase. Over the past two years, about 20% of the hospital’s patients have had a brain condition either caused by or worsened by opioid use, Bruch said.

Because so many drug users are young people, the healthcare costs can be hefty as some may need varying levels of care for the rest of their lives, according to health officials.

The opioid crisis has its roots in how doctors view of pain and what they were taught about the use of painkillers changed over the years, psychiatrist Anna Lembke, M.D., told NPR. 

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"Starting in the 1980s, doctors started to be told that opioids were effective treatment for chronic pain, and that treating patients long-term with opioids was evidence-based medicine. That was patently false and that was propagated by what I call 'big medicine,' in cahoots with big pharma,” she said.

A major shift in ideas occurred earlier this year when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidelines, telling primary care clinicians to prescribe treatments other than opioids for chronic pain outside of active cancer treatment, palliative care and end-of-life care.