(HealthNewsDigest.com) - Great Neck, NY, August 16, 2016 - The United States is experiencing a devastating epidemic of drug usage and overdose deaths. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of overdose fatalities reached a new high of 47,055 in 2014, or about 125 Americans every day. The dramatic increase in overdose deaths is driven largely by the explosion in addiction to opioids, primarily prescription painkillers and heroin. Since 1999, the number of overdose deaths involving opioids has nearly quadrupled. "Prescription opioids play an important role in reducing pain and suffering," says neurologist and addiction medicine specialist Dr. Russell Surasky with Surasky Neurological Center for Addiction, "but opioids as a class of drugs have great potential for misuse and as the number of prescriptions has skyrocketed in the last 25 years, we have seen soaring increases in the negative consequences related to their abuse."

Addiction is often misunderstood and continues to be seen by many people as a moral failing and a problem than can be overcome by a simple exercise of willpower. In fact, addiction is a complex disease. Drugs change the brain in ways that make it difficult to resist the impulse to continue taking the drugs. Opioids act by attaching to receptors in the brain that are stimulated to reduce the perception of pain and produce a feeling of well-being. When the drug wears off it detaches from the receptors and strong cravings compel taking another dose. After repeated use, opioids induce tolerance, meaning higher and higher doses are needed to achieve the same level of response. Over time, opioids cause long-term changes in the brain that persist even when the drugs are stopped and can cause cravings and relapses years later.

"For an addicted person to simply decide to permanently stop using opioids is next to impossible," says Dr. Surasky. "After as little as a few weeks of use, opiates 'hijack' the brain and the need for the drug becomes overwhelming. Unless the neurological damage can be healed, those cravings will persist for the rest of a person's life. Fortunately, we have learned a great deal about how these drugs affect the brain and we now have treatments that undo the damage, prevent relapse and help people achieve permanent recovery."

One of the newer and most effective treatments for opioid addiction is naltrexone (brand name Vivitrol®). "Vivitrol is a medication that immediately stops cravings and withdrawal symptoms," says Dr. Surasky. "With the patient's firm commitment to recovery, along with counseling and a strong support system, Vivitrol is a powerful tool in treating addiction to opioids and alcohol."