The global opioid crisis

The opioid crisis, “the misuse of and addiction to opioids—including prescription pain relievers, heroin, and synthetic opioids,” is a global phenomenon.[1] While it has increasingly been described in North America, it is becoming evident throughout the world.[2] [3]The reasons for this are manifold. In “Physician’s role in prescribing opioids in developing countries,” Roa et al describe what can happen when a patient is inappropriately started and inappropriately continued on opioid therapy. They describe a patient with refractory migraine headaches who was given 100 mg of tramadol intramuscularly at a walk-in clinic. He experienced immediate relief. He then began to pursue this drug more frequently.

“His visits to such medical units became increasingly frequent and he always received the ‘magical injection’ which gradually became ‘the only medicine on earth capable of alleviating my pain.’ Since his strenuous job did not allow him to attend walk-in clinics every time another… episode occurred, he managed to obtain written prescriptions from a physician which allowed him to acquire the medicine from any local pharmacy. Later the opioid was acquired from irregular sources which the patient did not want to disclose.”

Soon after, the patient began administering the drug intravenously. He reported episodes of generalized seizures after administration of the drug. He also expressed suicidal ideation due to his dependence on the drug and misuse of finances in order to acquire the drug.

Opioid misuse, in particular tramadol, is on the rise around the globe. ii This is particularly concerning due to tramadol’s marketing and perception as a drug with “low abuse/dependence potential.” Many harm reduction strategies have been described but research on access to these treatments in the developing world is lacking.[4] Methadone is on WHO’s list of essential medicines, and buprenorphine has also been a recommended addition. Physicians are culpable for the initiation of opioids in this patient. They are also liable for his continued dependence.  As the authors say, “Current approaches to deal with the opioid epidemic focus on newer strategies to manage chronic pain; however the role of the physician as a primary barrier to possible addiction remains underestimated, poorly discussed and most of the times, simply ignored.”

The authors continue, “The responsibility for the opioid crisis resides with governments, health authorities, pharmaceutical companies, pharmacies, physicians, healthcare providers and lastly with [patients].”


BMJ Case Reports invites authors to submit global health case reports that describe solutions to the opioid crisis worldwide. These cases could focus on:

-The risk for opioid use disorder and overdose in the developing world.

-Access to treatment for opioid use disorder

-Harm reduction interventions for those with opioid use disorder

Manuscripts may be submitted by students, physicians, nurses and allied health professionals to BMJ Case Reports at For more information, review our guidance on how to write a global health case report and look through our online collection

To read more about opioid use disorder at BMJ Case Reports, please review:

Treatment of opioid use disorder in an innovative community-based setting after multiple treatment attempts in a woman with untreated HIV

Moxonidine for tramadol withdrawal symptoms during detoxification

A woman’s experience of tapering from buprenorphine during pregnancy

To read more about global opioid use disorder from other sources, please see below:

[1] National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Opioid Overdose Crisi.” [internet]. National Institute of Health. January, 2019. Accessed from on 6/24/2019.

[2] Degenhardt L, Charlson F, Mathers B, Hall WD, Flaxman AD, Johns N, Vos T. The global epidemiology and burden of opioid dependence: results from the global burden of disease 2010 study. Addiction. 2014 Aug;109(8):1320-33.

[3] World Drug Report 2018 (United Nations publication, Sales No. E.18.XI.9).

[4] Babu KM, Brent J, Juurlink DN. Prevention of Opioid Overdose. New England Journal of Medicine. 2019 Jun 6;380(23):2246-55.