You’ve no doubt heard about the ongoing opioid epidemic that is happening in our world right now. It’s hard to avoid as this drug crisis is covered regularly in newspapers and magazines, on news programs and addressed by lawmakers. But what do you really know about the problem of opioid addiction and abuse?

Prescription opioids are a highly addictive class of drugs that are generally prescribed to treat pain. Also known as narcotics, the opioid class of drugs includes both illegal drugs such as heroin, and prescription drugs such as morphine, codeine, oxycodone and the notorious new drug fentanyl, which is up to 100 times more potent (and deadly) than morphine. These drugs can be taken by pill, by adhesive patch on the skin, by injection or by snorting through the nostril.

As a result of the drug’s easy access and its pain-numbing abilities, opioid addiction has become a serious problem in our country. From 2010 to 2016, rates of opioid addiction increased by 493 percent in the United States alone. Sadly, only 1 out of 10 addicted individuals receives specialized treatment for their condition. Every day, 91 people die of opioid overdoses in the US. And even if you aren’t using yourself, one in every four Americans knows, loves or is related to someone who has become dependent on opioids, has overdosed or died from an opioid overdose.

Chronic Pain and Opioid Dependence
No one wants to be addicted, yet many people become dependent on opioids in an effort to relieve unrelenting pain. Chronic illnesses and injuries can become a daily struggle, and many people feel limited in their options to find comfort.

It is difficult to balance physical pain with opioid use, in part because opioids are not designed for long-term use. Unfortunately, the use of these medications cause the brain to slow down production of its own natural painkillers in as little as two weeks. This leads to an increased tolerance (need for more opioids), and eventually opioid dependence or addiction. Many people only recognize this problem once they try to stop taking the medications and suddenly find themselves in more pain than ever!

This unfortunate effect makes many people feel trapped in a cycle of painkiller use. Up to one-third of people who have been prescribed opioid painkillers for chronic pain go on to become dependent on these drugs. For some, it results in drug-seeking behavior, and may even lead to life-threatening use of fentanyl or heroin. Suddenly, America has found that the old stereotypes of “typical heroin users” no longer suffice. This has become a problem that affects us all.

But what can you do if you’re already trapped in that cycle of opioid abuse? No one wants to live in pain, so it is important to explore all of your options. Seek second and even third opinions. Empower yourself through research. Consider all of the possible treatments for pain outside of opioid use. New ways for recovery are being discovered and older, natural ways of treatment are being re-discovered and proven every day.

Opioid Use and Mental Health Issues
Approximately 38.6 million Americans struggle with mental health conditions at any given time. As much as 18.7 percent of those people also use prescription painkillers (opioids). More than 50 percent of US opioid prescriptions are given to people who also have a mental health diagnosis. This makes sense, because, after all, chronic pain can be distressing and traumatic incidents can cause injury or chronic body tension. Physical illness can also impact mental health over time. Sadly, many people use opioid drugs to numb emotional pain as well.

Some signs that someone you care about may have an opioid use problem include:

  • The regular, ongoing use of opioids, sometimes even on days when pain is not present
  • Taking medications in a way they were not prescribed
  • Changes in sleep patterns or an inability to sleep without the medication
  • Periodic gastrointestinal (digestive) distress, especially when unable to take the medications
  • Mood changes that may appear like personality changes
  • Visiting different doctors, seeking more opioids
  • Borrowing medications, “losing” medications, hiding medications or any other suspicious or unusual behavior
  • Poor decision making or behavior that is out of character

People who have become dependent on opioids don’t look like anti-drug campaign ads from the 1980s. These are our friends, our colleagues, our parents and our children. The opioid crisis has reached epic proportions and have become a leading cause of death in our country and our world. The signs of an addiction are not always obvious — they can be subtle, and it is up to all of us to help our friends and loved ones (and ourselves), because no one is immune to the effects of these drugs.

If you think that you or someone you care about is struggling, search for integrated treatment, or treatment for co-occurring disorders (also referred to as “dual diagnosis” treatment). This type of program is designed to address multiple issues in one location. For instance, you may be able to treat both an emotional concern and the opioid problem concurrently, an approach that has been proven to give the patient the best chance of long-term recovery success. You may also benefit from some assistance to get off of opioids and transition to other methods of pain management with minimal discomfort.

There is a path to wellness, and help is available. Clinicians who specialize in these issues understand what you are going through. Guardian Recovery Network offers a number of comprehensive treatment options that can help you or someone you care about. Take care of yourself and those you love by seeking support today.

More information on the history of the Opioid Epidemic

By Kathryn Millán, LPC/MHSP
A writer for Skywood Recovery.