Painkillers That Kill- A Silent Injustice

By Dr. Fred J. Von Stieff

mans head with brain illuminated

A nightclub fire in Brazil leaves 242 college students dead and it makes worldwide news, as it should. Overdoses on opiate painkiller medications take the lives of over 25,000 individuals every year.

Where is the media coverage?

Amidst feelings of grief, confusion, and even unfounded guilt, this silent injustice leaves families with many unanswered questions:

How did this happen? Why did this happen? Who is to blame?

The latest research in the field of chemical dependency reveals answers that will destroy the stigma associated with drug-overdose on Opiate medications. Contrary to common belief, the individuals addicted to painkillers are often intelligent, moral, well-respected individuals that many would never guess struggled with addiction.

Why overdose is so Common

After the slippery slope of addiction is embarked upon, overdose is all too easy due to various dangerous characteristics of opiates.Many people start out taking these opiate medications for pain management or recreational use. As opiate medications are taken, the beta-endorphins (the body’s natural pain-fighting opiates) gradually shut off and receptors become disabled, increasing tolerance. The individual then increases dosage to remain
functional and appear normal, keeping one step ahead of painful withdrawal. As the number of pills increase, the concentration of opiates in the blood stream reaches toxic levels, making the risk of overdose more likely. With their judgment and insight impaired, it becomes difficult to accurately keep track of how many pills have already been taken, making overdose all too easy.

Additionally, another serious danger to this addiction is the inconsistent strength of opiate drugs. An individual might take ten pills one day and ten pills the next day and the strength may vary greatly. This is yet another reason accidental overdose is so common. One mistake can all too easily cost a life.

Why Addicted?

Individuals readily became addicted to opiate medications for a combination of reasons: genetics, conditioning, neurochemical response, and avoidance of withdrawal. Genetic predisposition towards addiction is a reality that many face. Within our genetics are the instructions to how our brain develops, including details that determine each individual’s inherited amount of neurotransmitters.

Neurotransmitters are the chemical messengers that cause us to experience various feelings and sensations. Each person is born with innate levels of each kind of neurotransmitter. Some are born with deficiencies in these levels.

The opiate neurotransmitter system is the strongest out of all the eight neurotransmitter systems involved in chemical dependency. Painkillers directly stimulate the opiate system, which in turn stimulates the GABA and dopamine neurotransmitter systems.

GABA gives a sense of calmness. High levels of Dopamine are extremely pleasurable and euphoric. All this stimulation resulting from painkiller use adds up to be very addictive, especially for individuals born with an imbalance in one or more of these
neurotransmitter systems.

As an addictionologist and Medical Director of a detoxification unit in California, I daily detoxify patients off of prescription opiate drugs. There are three groups of people that most often fall victim to opiate abuse:

1) Patients With Pain Issues

A limited use of painkillers for patients with serious injuries or recent surgical procedures done is to be expected. The problem surfaces after patients heal and attempt to go off the prescription painkillers.

When the patients stop taking the painkilling medication, they go into withdrawal and cannot tell if the pain they feel is coming from the previous complications or from the withdrawal. Because of the depletion of the body’s beta-endorphins, when they first stop the opiates, they experience an intensification of pain at every site in the body previously injured. This leads patients to continue taking the painkillers just to avoid the excruciating pain of withdrawal.

When a detoxification without the use of any opiates is complete, the dangerous side effects of addiction are eliminated and 90% of patients experience less or equal amounts of pain as they did while they were on the painkillers.

2) Genetic Alcoholics

“Genetic alcoholics” are individuals born with an imbalance in one or more of the six neurotransmitter systems that alcohol raises. Some of these genetic alcoholics never actually become alcoholics.

Then after getting some dental or orthopedic procedure done, they are introduced to opiates, and rapidly become addicted, never knowing they had a neurotransmitter deficiency in the first place.

Those that do become alcoholics, drink to alleviate anxiety, depression, or just to feel “normal” due to the neurotransmitter stimulation. Opiates and alcohol both have a similar effect on the neurotransmitters. Opiate abuse is easier to conceal and has a stronger impact on the brain, therefore many alcoholics switch to opiate abuse. Using opiates not only directly stimulates the opiate neurotransmitter system; it ends up stimulating four of the five systems also affected by alcohol. The end result of heavy drinking is equal to that of opiate abuse: a euphoric dopamine surge.

Therefore genetic alcoholics who abuse opiates are using the opiate system to counteract the deficiencies of the other systems.

3) Bipolar Individuals

Bipolar individuals can typically control the symptoms of their mood disorder by using opiates. It is common for bipolar patients to replace their GABA bipolar medication with opiates like OxyContin and morphine. The stimulation of the opiate neurotransmitter system in turn stimulates the GABA system, alleviating their bipolar symptoms, yet bringing about an entirely new set of problems: addiction, sedation, and the loss of control.

A large percentage of opiate abusers are unaware they suffer from bipolar disorder. After two or three days of detoxifying the patients and taking away the opiates entirely, it becomes obvious whether or not the opiate addict does indeed suffer from bipolar disorder or not. If the patient is bipolar, he or she will become manic, out of control, talkative, and/or hyper vigilant. Controlling the underlying bipolar disorder with the proper medications will help prevent the patient from relapsing.

Conditioned Response

Taking opiate drugs destroys individuals’ very ability to cope with reality. After experiencing a euphoric state while on opiates, facing reality seems unappealing and difficult. It’s neither easy nor desirable to feel normal thereafter because opiates alter their very concept of normal. Each time the person takes a dose of opiates, he or she is being conditioned to believe they must do this to feel better. Altering the very fabric of users’ reality and modifying their perception, opiates gradually dull the acuity of the five senses.

Continued opiate use causes permanent damage to opiate receptors which leads to zero pain tolerance later in life.

I continually work to improve treatment methods to get patients off of opiate drugs permanently without using other opiate medications throughout the detoxification and the treatment. These methods are quicker, safer, and what I hope to be the future norm.

The work of internationally acclaimed Addictionologist, Dr. Fred J. Von Stieff is revolutionizing the way the world views and treats addiction, while saving countless lives. You can learn more about Dr. Von Stieff’s highly effective methods of focusing on
neurotransmitter balances throughout detoxification and treatment, in his book, Brain in Balance: Understanding the Genetics and Neurochemistry behind Addiction and Sobriety, available at: