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Brain Injury Alliance of Arizona Blog

This March, Shine a Spotlight on Brain Injury from Overdose

BY LIZ BRADLEY

In April of 2020, the Brain Injury Alliance of Arizona issued an alert regarding quarantine’s effects on opioid overdose risk. March 2020 had already seen a 40% increase in drug overdose deaths, compared to March 2019. Financial insecurity, isolation, worry, and despair are all risk factors for increased drug use, and can trigger a return to use for those in recovery.

This March, Shine a Spotlight on Brain Injury from Overdose

BY LIZ BRADLEY

March is Brain Injury Awareness Month. While great strides have been made in preventing some common causes of brain injury, such as falls and car accidents, some other causes of brain injury have gone largely undiscussed, remaining shrouded in mystery and stigma. This is particularly so when it comes to brain injuries from opioid overdoses, which have increased during the COVID-19 global pandemic. Deprivation of oxygen to any organ, particularly the brain can have a devastating effect.

In April of 2020, the Brain Injury Alliance of Arizona issued an alert regarding quarantine’s effects on opioid overdose risk. March 2020 had already seen a 40% increase in drug overdose deaths, compared to March 2019. Financial insecurity, isolation, worry, and despair are all risk factors for increased drug use, and can trigger a return to use for those in recovery. In addition, quarantine disrupted the illicit drug market, which can lower the tolerance of people who can’t obtain their normal amount of drugs. This puts a person at risk for overdose if they later return to a higher dose. Harm reduction materials and recovery services also became more scarce in 2020.

Nearly a year later, we are still gathering data on the devastating results. While we don’t yet know exactly how much opioid-related deaths increased from 2019 to 2020, the Pima County Health Department reported that in the first 9 months of 2020, they had already confirmed 334 drug overdose deaths, nearly matching the 337 for the entire year of 2019. They said they expected to reach 425 – 450 by year’s end. In Maricopa County, 1,752 drug overdose deaths have been reported for the year 2020, with an additional 550 cases still under investigation. The final total is likely twice as many deaths as 2019, which was 1,078.

While these deaths are devastating, the Brain Injury Alliance of Arizona is also concerned about the increase in the number of non-fatal opioid overdoses, which can result in hypoxic or anoxic brain injury. Opioid overdose slows or stops a person’s breathing, resulting in a lack of sufficient oxygen to the brain. Non-fatal opioid overdoses recorded in Pima County rose from 733 in 2019 to 979 in 2020. Sonoran Prevention Works, a harm reduction organization which serves all of Arizona, collects reports on overdose reversals using the Naloxone kits they distribute. In 2019, they received reports of 2,837 such reversals. In 2020, the number of reversals reported jumped up to 4,097. Each of these represents a life saved – but also a possible brain injury.

2020 also saw an increase of the synthetic opioid Fentanyl, which the Arizona Department of Health Services says was linked to 40.9% of drug overdoses. Fentanyl is 25 – 50 times stronger than heroin, meaning much less is needed to cause an overdose. Fentanyl is also cheaper to make and easier to smuggle. It is being mixed into other illicit drugs, like cocaine and meth, so people may not even know they are taking it. Since there is little quality control, a poorly-mixed batch could mean the difference between life and death. Because fentanyl is so potent, more doses of the opioid overdose reversal drug, Naloxone, are often needed to bring someone back from the brink. The longer a person goes without sufficient oxygen, the more likely a brain injury is to occur.

If you or someone you know experienced an opioid-related overdose this past year, look for possible symptoms of brain injury such as headaches; seizures, dizziness or balance problems; changes in thinking, mood, or judgement; or issues with memory, sleep, sight, or hearing. If these changes began any time after the overdose, call the Brain Injury Alliance of Arizona to speak with one of our Resource Facilitation Specialists. You can call our statewide Neuro Info-Line at 888-500-9165 or visit BIAAZ.org.

Liz Bradley is a Certified Recovery Support Specialist for the Brain Injury Alliance of Arizona

ABOUT BRAIN INJURY ALLIANCE OF ARIZONA

The Brain Injury Alliance of Arizona (BIAAZ) is the only statewide nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of adults and children with all types of brain injuries through prevention, advocacy, awareness and education. BIAAZ also houses the Arizona Brain Health Resource Center, a collection of educational information and neuro-specific resources for brain injury survivors, caregivers, family members and professionals.

What began in 1983 as a grassroots effort has grown into a strong statewide presence, providing valuable life-long resources and community support for individuals with all types of brain trauma at no charge.

The Brain Injury Alliance of Arizona:

  • Works with Congressional Brain Injury Task Force
  • Houses Arizona Brain Health Resource Center
  • Hosts Statewide Opioid Use Disorder & Cognitive Impairment Workgroup
  • Has Statewide Opioid Use Disorder & Cognitive Impairment Response team with peer support, training, and family wraparound services
  • Facilitates Brain Health Advisory Council
  • Manages statewide Neuro Info-Line: 888-500-9165

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