MorphineHow Many People Die From Morphine?[i] is a widely used prescription opioid medication to treat moderate and severe pain symptoms. Unfortunately, some people take this medication without a prescription or consume it in excessively high amounts. Anyone involved in this type of behavior has a significant chance of dying from an overdose. It’s difficult to tell exactly how many people die from morphine overdoses every year, however; current federal statistics give a general idea of the extent of the problem.

Morphine Basics

Morphine is found naturally in the opium poppy, the direct or indirect source of all substances classified as opioids. Pharmaceutical manufacturers take this natural compound, purify it and make it available for medical use. In America, the current list of branded morphine medications includes Kadian, MS-Contin, Arymo ER and Morphabond. Prescription morphine is available in different forms including:

  • Liquids
  • Injections
  • Extended-release capsules
  • Extended-release tablets

Morphine’s euphoric effect makes it a highly addictive substance. The chief underlying cause of morphine addiction is long-term changes in the brain in an area called the pleasure center. Anyone who is chemically dependent on the medication can experience extremely unpleasant withdrawal symptoms if they stop using the drug or abruptly lower their regular dosage.

Morphine Overdose

morphine overdose[ii] occurs when a buildup of the medication seriously reduces the amount of nerve cell (neuron) communication taking place inside the brain. A short list of the potential symptoms of this disruption in normal brain function includes:

  • Unusual sleepiness
  • Involuntary unconsciousness
  • Extremely constricted pupils
  • Abdominal cramps (affecting the gastrointestinal tract and/or the stomach)
  • Convulsions (i.e., seizures)
  • Breathing difficulties (e.g., shortness of breath, abnormally shallowed or slowed breathing)
  • A complete inability to breathe
  • A completely unresponsive loss of consciousness (i.e., coma)

Without emergency medical care, a person in the midst of an overdose can quickly die. Medical professionals can give immediate aid in the form of naloxone (Narcan), a medication that reverses and blocks the effects of all opioids. Additional forms of care include artificial breathing support, laxatives and IV (intravenous fluids). Some people recover from a morphine overdose without hospitalization, while others require inpatient care.

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Calculating the Number of Morphine Fatalities

Each year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) record statistics for all major causes of death in the U.S. These statistics include the number of people who die from alcohol poisoning and various forms of drug and medication overdoses. However, when reporting their findings, the CDC doesn’t always list the specific cause of death. Instead, they sometimes group related causes into a single category.

For statistical purposes, morphine is categorized together with all other naturally occurring opioid substances[iii], as well as all semisynthetic opioids (with the notable exception of heroin). The substances classified along with morphine include two of America’s most widely distributed opioid painkillers: hydrocodone and oxycodone.

Since the CDC does not report morphine-related deaths separately, there’s no way to know exactly how many of these deaths occur in a given year. In 2016, a total of 14,427 people died after consuming some sort of natural opioid or a semisynthetic opioid other than heroin. Many of these fatalities almost certainly stemmed from excessive intake of oxycodone or hydrocodone, two substances frequently targeted for purposeful abuse. However, morphine overdoses likely also occurred in substantial numbers.

There is another significant problem that makes it hard to tell exactly how many people die from morphine overdoses each year. Morphine is the source material for the production of heroin, a street drug that currently ranks as the second most common cause of fatal overdoses in America. When processed inside the human body, heroin naturally converts back to its original chemical form: morphine.

This fact means that doctors performing autopsies can find it difficult or impossible to tell the difference between heroin-related deaths and morphine-related deaths[iv]. As a result, they may tend to underestimate the number of people who die after overdosing on heroin. At the same time, they may overestimate the number of people who die after overdosing on morphine.

Rising Death Rates

Regardless of the problems involved in distinguishing between morphine deaths and heroin deaths, one fact is clear: an increasing number of Americans are dying from overconsumption of opioid drugs and medications. In 2016, the total number of opioid-related fatalities stood at more than 53,000.

Illicit drug and prescription medication overdoses in general are also on the rise and in 2016, over 64,000 people died from these toxic body reactions. Some people die after consuming more than one drug or medication, a fact that makes it even more difficult to pinpoint the causes of specific fatalities.

Morphine/Opioid Addiction

Addiction is one of the key driving forces behind almost all forms of substance overdose, including overdoses triggered by morphine and other opioids[v]. A couple of important facts underscore this reality.

First, people affected by untreated addiction can find it nearly impossible to monitor or control their substance intake. Frequently, they end up consuming more drugs or alcohol than they intended, as well as consuming more often than they intended. In addition, a desire to avoid the discomfort of withdrawal symptoms can lead to continued use, even in people who are trying to quit. The result is increased exposure to circumstances that make an overdose a distinct possibility.

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  1. U.S. National Library of Medicine – MedlinePlus: Morphine
    https://medlineplus.gov/druginfo/meds/a682133.html
  2. U.S. National Library of Medicine – MedlinePlus: Morphine Overdose
    https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/002502.htm
  3. National Institute on Drug Abuse: Overdose Death Rates
    https://www.drugabuse.gov/related-topics/trends-statistics/overdose-death-rates
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Increases in Drug and Opioid Overdose Deaths – Unites States, 2000-2014
    https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6450a3.htm
  5. American Society of Addiction Medicine: Opioid Addiction – 2016 Facts & Figures
    https://www.asam.org/docs/default-source/advocacy/opioid-addiction-disease-facts-figures.pdf
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