Understanding Opioid Addiction
Opioid addiction is a national crisis, and a large portion of individuals struggling can trace their point of contact to a prescription following an injury. According to the CDC, more than 191 million opioid prescriptions were dispensed in the United States in 2017 alone.
Opioid pain medication is a classification of synthetic opiate drugs (heroin) and includes fentanyl, oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, morphine and others, and is used to treat mild to severe pain. The most at-risk groups of those prescribed opioids include athletes suffering from sports injuries (particularly youth), work injuries, and those that suffer from chronic pain. Misuse of opioid prescriptions is defined by non-medical use of pain medication: taking opioid medication at a higher dose, or for a longer time than actually prescribed. While prescription pain medication can be safe when used properly and short term, and a dependency to these narcotics can develop in only a few days of daily use.
The physiological effects of opioid use make them highly addictive and the danger of misusing prescription opioids is serious. Nearly 3 out of 4 prescription overdoses are caused by opioid pain medication and these deaths make up more than heroin and cocaine combined. In addition, some of those affected by opioid pain medication addiction turn to non-medication opiates such as heroin and illegal fentanyl to satisfy the body’s chemical dependency—in fact, 80% of new heroin users now in treatment for addiction were first prescribed opioids. This harrowing fact compounds the potential danger of long-term drug addiction and overdose with prolonged narcotic pain medication use.
Opioid addiction after an injury can happen to anyone. It is important to understand that if you or a loved one is struggling with stopping prescribed opiates, it is because the physiological changes due to prolonged use of opioid medication cause physical and mental dependency on pain relievers. Fortunately, there are resources to help, regardless of how severe or prolonged the opioid addiction.
How Opioids Affect the Body
Simply put, opioids are a form of pain relief. Narcotic painkillers work by reducing your body’s ability to feel pain by attaching receptors to the brain that trigger a dopamine release instead. It is not that pain is actually relieved, but rather, your body simply cannot feel it. This is dangerous long term, because pain naturally triggers the natural release of endorphins in the body, which actually promote healing—without this process due to supplementing dopamine triggers synthetically instead, your body will heal slower and be more susceptible to injury in the future.
While opioids prescribed after an injury or surgery will help pain management during the healing process short-term, the body eventually develops a tolerance for pain medication. This often results in misuse of prescriptions by taking higher doses, by being prescribed stronger or different medications, or by turning to illegal opioids. In fact, when opioids are used for more than 4 weeks, your body actually becomes more sensitive to pain and cannot return to a normal state of healing when stopping opioid medication. In addition, the dopamine high felt when taking opioids is extremely addicting on its own, creating a dangerous cycle of opioid dependency.
There are factors that increase the risk of opioid misuse and potential addiction:
- Taking higher doses than is prescribed
- Taking opioids for an extended period of time
- Taking multiple kinds of opioids at the same time
- Mixing opioids with alcohol or other intoxicants
- Mixing opioids with other prescriptions, such as anti-anxiety, anti-depression, or sleeping medications
Opioid medication should never be taken for chronic pain, and following an injury, should only be taken for pain management for a few days to avoid dependency.
Work Injuries and Opioid Addiction
Whether injured on the job or if work habits have contributed to other pain-causing factors, work injuries are often the culprit when it comes to long-term use of prescription opioids, resulting in several harmful side effects.
There are particular additional high-risk factors for at-risk injured workers, who have a higher chance of developing the following after a work-related injury:
- Sleep apnea
- Heart problems/heart failure
- Respiratory problems
In fact, according to the National Safety Council, 25% of workers’ compensation prescription claims are for opioid medications, despite the risk of disability doubling for injured workers that are prescribed opioids for more than one week.
Sports Injuries and Opioid Addiction
Sports injuries affect the widest demographic of opioid dependencies—athletes of all ages and backgrounds are at-risk of developing an opioid addiction following an injury. Opioids are commonly prescribed for concussions, broken bones, repetitive injuries, and sports-related chronic pain.
Additionally, this affects youth—young athletes are prescribed opioids at twice the rate of their peers, and 11% of student-athletes have misused prescription opioids. This often comes with the pressure of maintaining performance levels in high school athletes attempting to get onto college teams, and college athletes proving themselves as professional athletes. Coaches, parents, and physicians should closely monitor any young athlete who has been injured and prescribed opioids to prevent misuse and dependency.
The extreme physical strain on athletes’ bodies make them more susceptible to injury, yet often does not allow time for a full and healthy recovery. As a result, many athletes depend on opioids to manage pain in order to prevent taking any time off. On top of this, many athletes turn to opioids as a means to manage depression and emotional tax of sports-related injury.
Post-Injury Opioid Addiction Prevention and Treatment
Managing pain without medication, whether over the counter or an opioid medication prescription can be difficult. However, there are ways that opioid addiction can be prevented during an injury recovery process:
- Reconsider the use of opioids for pain management in the first place—other pain medications such as anti-inflammatories (acetaminophen and ibuprofen) pose less risk in health-related side effects as well as potential abuse and addiction
- Advocate for limited term opioid prescriptions—only 2 or 3 days instead of 1-4 weeks
- Avoid long acting or extended release opioid medication, which pose a higher risk for overdose when misused
- Communicate with your doctor if you fall in any at-risk category for harmful side effects of prolonged opioid use, such as a history of depression or health issues
- Monitor loved ones, particularly youth, who have been prescribed opioids
- Ask your doctor for alternative, drug-free physical therapy treatments that help to heal the injury rather than simply alleviate pain during the healing process
If you are a loved one has had trouble coming off of pain medication or has developed an opioid dependency following an injury, our Orange County rehab professionals can help. The specialists at Fresh Start California understand how difficult this process can be and are sympathetic to each individual circumstance. We want to help you recover, no matter what point of opioid addiction you may be struggling with.