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Pain pills and heroin in Teton Valley

Nathan LevangerNathan Levanger, D.O., Family Practice  

Prescription drug abuse is a deadly national problem that has taken many lives, including the lives of well-known celebrities.  Two words in that sentence can buffer the significance of opioid addiction for Teton Valley residents: “national” and “celebrity”. Driggs isn’t Hollywood. Victor isn’t New York City. One of the many benefits of living in a small town is that we do occasionally get left out of highly-publicized epidemics. But not this time.  Southeast Idaho has already experienced deaths by heroin overdose, with one fatality in Teton County. Our hospital E.R. and clinics have seen an increase in people struggling with addiction issues related to prescription drugs and heroin use. The nearest substance abuse treatment centers are in Idaho Falls and Jackson, Wyoming.  It’s up to each of us to understand what we can do to help prevent addiction and how to support someone who is caught in the cycle. Let’s start with some definitions.  

Addiction is different than being medically dependent on pain management prescriptions. The American Society of Addiction Medicine defines addiction as a “chronic relapsing brain disease characterized by an individual pathologically pursing reward and/ or relief by substance abuse and other behaviors.” In other words, it’s a compulsive behavior that demands more and more drugs, regardless of negative consequences. It’s an illness, just like clinical depression.  People who are medically dependent on narcotics may include people with diseases or injuries that are so crippling they cannot function without pain relief. Pain expert Dr. Scott Fishman sums up the differences this way: The opioid dependent patient with chronic pain has improved function with their use of drugs and the patient with opioid addiction does not. Opioids represent a class of drugs that share chemical properties. These include oxycodone, hydrocodone, morphine, fentanyl and heroin. There’s been an abrupt spike in heroin use because it’s become much cheaper and easier to find than other opioids.  

Now that you know the basics, here is how you can prevent the spread of addiction:

  • Yes, we’ve all heard this and yes, it really is a problem. In a survey taken in 2014, 54% of all prescription medicine abuse cases began with accessing unused opioids from friends or relatives. You can dump your unused prescriptions in a bin located at the Teton County Sheriff’s Office, no questions asked. 
  • Call the crisis hotline for information about available support. You don’t have to be in crisis to call. It is available to help sort out your concerns, questions and give information: 1-800-273-8255  
  • Visit the local Teton Valley Mental Health Coalition for counselors, facilities and other resources at
  • If you have a friend or family member who is at risk for overdose, learn how to administer Naxolone, also known as Narcan. This antidote blocks the effects of overdose and can restore normal breathing. It can be administered as a nasal spray or intramuscular injection. You don’t have to be a medical professional to buy or give Narcan, and it may be purchased at most pharmacies.  Don’t rely on Narcan as a lifesaver. It can only be effective if it’s given within an appropriate amount of time. It can’t reverse brain damage nor can it cure addiction.  

Drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the US, taking over car crashes and accidents in the home. Let’s stop this national statistic from becoming a Teton County, Idaho statistic.  

Nathan Levanger is a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine specializing in family health care at Driggs Clinic.

This article first appeared in the Aug. 11, 2016 edition of the Teton Valley News.

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