Opioids: Understanding The Risks And What You Can Do

Young Man in Recovery from Opioid Addiction

Opioids are recognized as a legitimate medical therapy for patients with severe chronic pain that does not respond to other therapies. But anyone who takes opioids is at risk for addiction – regardless of who they are, how much money they earn, where they live, the color of their skin, their gender or their age.

It is impossible to predict with any accuracy who will develop an opioid use disorder. Even short-term use of opioids for pain relief can lead to addiction. Today, opioids, whether prescribed by a doctor or obtained illegally, are the No. 1 cause of overdose deaths in the United States.

And they are responsible for a level of misery and suffering virtually unseen in human history.

Much of the burden of determining whether opioid treatment is appropriate falls upon the medical practitioner. He or she must be constantly aware of the risks of misuse, abuse, diversion, addiction and death from overdose. The practitioner must carefully assess each patient, monitor their progress throughout the course of treatment, and pay close attention to signs that may indicate a problem.

They must be able and willing to step up and take action if needed.

Patients and their families have a role to play, too. One key factor is honestly discussing with their practitioner factors that may increase their risk of addiction. Some of the known risk factors for opioid use disorder include:

  • Family or personal history of substance use
  • Unemployment
  • Young age
  • History of involvement in the judicial system including DUI
  • Regular contact with high-risk populations or environments
  • Untreated mental health issues
  • Problems or conflict with employers, family or friends
  • Risk-taking or thrill-seeking behavior
  • Heavy tobacco use
  • History of depression or anxiety
  • Stressful life circumstances
  • Prior drug or alcohol rehabilitation

Because women are more likely than men to have chronic pain, they are at increased risk of opioid addiction. Women are more likely than men to be prescribed opioids and to be given higher doses of the medication over longer periods of time. Further, women have biological tendencies to become dependent more quickly than men.

Understanding the risk factors is key along with understanding anyone who uses opioids is at risk for addiction. Anyone. Let’s discuss the steps you can take to reduce the risk of opioid addiction.

What you can do to reduce your risk

  1. Before accepting a prescription for opioid medications, talk to your doctor about alternatives. Over-the-counter medications like Tylenol or Ibuprofen may provide sufficient relief. Physical therapy, exercise, hot/cold packs, TENS units … even something as simple as changes in position can help make pain manageable without opioids.
  2. If you and your physician agree an opioid is the best course of treatment, ask for the absolute minimum to be prescribed. In many cases, three days treatment should be sufficient. There is a definite link between longer-term prescriptions and addiction.
  3. Stop taking opioids as soon as you no longer need them. 
  4. Always take your medications as they are prescribed. If they are prescribed to be taken in pill form, take them as pills.
  5. Talk to your pharmacist about medication disposal. Many pharmacies have drug take-back boxes and local police departments throughout Kentucky accept unused prescriptions for safe disposal. Having opioids around the house puts you at risk.  

Why are opioids so dangerous?

Opioids trigger the reward centers of the brain. When taken, opioids trigger the release of endorphins, neurotransmitters in the brain responsible for a sense of pleasure and well-being. This flood of endorphins dampens the sense of pain and boosts positive feelings, creating a temporary sense of well-being. But as soon as the opioids wear off, that sense of well-being disappears. This is the beginning of the journey toward addiction.

Long-term opioid use slows the body’s production of endorphins. As a result, the same dose of opioids no longer has the same effect. Often, the user increases the dose to achieve that sense of pleasure and well-being. As this process advances, the user may find himself unable to obtain higher doses of opioids legally and may turn to illegal means to get them – stealing opioids from relatives and friends or purchasing them from drug dealers.

From here, the journey to heroin use is short. Heroin is cheaper than prescription medications and easily obtained. It’s also often laced with contaminants and synthetic opioids that are more powerful and deadlier. Heroin mixed with fentanyl has proved to be an especially deadly combination.

What about long-term use for chronic pain?

If you're living with chronic pain, opioids are not likely to be a safe and effective long-term treatment option. Many other treatments are available, including less-addictive pain medications and nonpharmacological therapies. Aim for a treatment plan that makes it possible to enjoy your life without opioids.

If you're taking opioids and you've developed tolerance, ask your doctor for help. Don't stop opioid medications without a doctor's help. Quitting these drugs abruptly can cause severe side effects, including increased pain. Your doctor can help you taper off opioids safely.

The professionals at New Vista are here to help you, and your loved ones, successfully achieve recovery from substance use disorders, including opioid use. For more information, questions, support or to get started, call New Vista at 1.800.928.8000.