An April 2015 study by the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics revealed that prescription drug use has been increasing steadily in the US for the past decade, with painkilling opioids, antibiotics, and antidepressants making up the top three most commonly prescribed.  Though the term "prescription" drug implies that these drugs are recommended to you by doctors, dependence on these drugs, opioids being the most notorious, has led to a heroin crisis in small towns, with Massachusetts facing the worst of the increased heroin abuse.  Though "heroin-abuse" does seem alarming, the problem is ultimately rooted in the addictive and destructive nature of the opioids, which too often end up being a gateway drug for to-be-abusers.

Opioids, long associated with abuse and addiction, make up a category of pain medication that has played a distinct role in society for years. While they are strongly associated with abuse, addiction and the dire consequences of diversion, they are also essential medications as the most effective drugs for the relief of pain and suffering. Because there has been a lack of alternatives that provide as-effective pain relief, opioids tend to be over prescribed, which too often leads to addiction, as patients grow dependent on these drugs to manage chronic pain.

In recent months, federal agencies and state health officials have urged doctors to first treat the pain without using opioids, and some have announced plans to restrict how many pain pills a doctor can prescribe. Difficulties such as inconsistent insurance coverage, as well as resistance from both patients and their doctors, getting millions of people with chronic pain to alternative treatments remains a daunting task.

An estimated 1.9 million Americans struggled with opioid-based substance abuse disorders, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and opioid abuse rates have continued to rise with each passing year. Many believe the top pharmaceutical companies that manufacture these drugs would not exist without the tremendous influence these companies have in the marketplace. By using a wide range of marketing and advertising tactics, companies such as Purdue Pharma, a private company which produces the brand-name oxycodone drug OxyContin, Endo Pharmaceuticals (owned by Merck & Co. - NYSE: MRK), which produces Percocet (oxycodone hydrochloride and acetaminophen tablets), and Abbott Laboratories (ABT  ), whose spin-off AbbVie Inc. (ABBV  ) produces brand-name hydrocodone drug Vicodin, are often attributed to the opioid epidemic in the United States.

Because of the demand for strong painkillers that are less likely to be abused, there is massive opportunity to be seized by companies ranging from biotech startups to large drug manufacturers Pfizer (PFE  ) and Biogen (BIIB  ), who are all racing to find a solution drug that is expected to generate billions in annual sales. Pfizer and Biogen is reportedly testing drugs that trigger different opioid receptors than the ones triggered by traditional opioids, which are notorious for their euphoric effects. The companies hope these drugs will have similar painkilling properties, without the "high" associated with opioid-based drug abuse.

Though the current state of the opioid epidemic is far from negligible, awareness of the issue is definitely present, and with drug manufacturing giants like Pfizer investing millions into the development of a solution to the problem, we can be optimistic about a future with better painkilling medication.