5 Ways People Become Addicted to Opioids [Guide]

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February 15, 2019

Odds are, you didn’t set out to become addicted to opioids, but it happens. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, in 2017, there were an estimated 1.7 million people with opioid related substance abuse problems, with 47,000 deaths resulting from opioid overdose.  So, while recovery from addiction may feel like a long, lonely path to travel, you are far from alone.

There are many pathways to addiction. Some began with a legitimate medical need for prescribed opiates. Still others acquired an opiate, perhaps something like Oxycodone or Vicodin, seeking to dull the emotional pain of depression or personal loss.  For others, partying, or even simple curiosity, opened the door to opiate abuse, as can moving from a more “socially acceptable” drug, such as alcohol or marijuana. Below, you will find the top 5 reasons one might become addicted to opioids.

1. Physical Pain Management

One of the more common roads to opiate addiction is through a doctor’s office.  There are many forms of pain that might require pain management, but here are a few:

  • Automobile accident
  • On the job injury
  • Chronic Pain
  • Post-surgical discomfort 

All of these have resulted in well-meaning doctors prescribing common pain medications such as Vicodin, Hydrocodone, Percocet, and OxyContin. Each effective in relieving pain, but with the unfortunate side effect of being an opiate and carrying the potential for addiction.

Opiates reduce the sensation of pain in the user, but also have the side effect of activating your brain’s reward system to provide a feeling of well-being, or pleasure. Since these sensations are also associated with activities like having sex and eating, opiates motivate you to keep using them, which leads to a dependency.

Although there are a number of known factors which can impact your potential for addiction, it’s nearly impossible to determine who will become addicted to prescription opiates.

According to the Mayo Clinic, here are several signs associated with those who may become addicted:

  • Poverty
  • Unemployment
  • A family with a history of substance abuse
  • Personal history of substance abuse
  • Age (younger users are more likely to abuse)
  • Severe Depression
  • Stress
  • Association with High-Risk people

While this is not an exhaustive list, you should review it and see if you fit into any of these categories.  If you do, you should think about steps you will take to deter opioid addiction.

Should your doctor prescribe an opioid for pain management, try to follow these steps to minimize your likelihood of opiate addiction.

1. Talk to your doctor and tell them of your concerns, especially if you have any of the risk factors listed above.

2. Try to keep prescribed opiate use to three days or less, transitioning to a non-opiate option as soon as possible during your recovery. (Some scenarios, such as chronic pain, do not apply here) Keep all prescription medication secured, particularly opiates, properly disposing of them as soon as you transition to a non-opioid pain medication.

3. Keep all prescription medication secured, particularly opiates, properly disposing of them as soon as you transition to a non-opioid pain medication. Many of your local police departments, sanitation centers, and even pharmacies can offer guidance on how to properly dispose of prescription drugs.

Although medication containing opioids does serve a necessary purpose, always be aware of its potential to damage even more than it helps. If you find yourself unable to wean yourself away from your prescription medication, seek help as soon as possible to prevent developing an addiction problem that can take complete control of your life.  

2. Emotional Pain Management

Life can deal you devastating disappointments. It can bring you emotional pain for which you have no response, where all you can do is sit and ask, “why did this happen?” Sometimes, dulling that pain can seem like an impossible task and turning to self- medication with alcohol or prescription medication offers what seems like a quick solution. Reaching into the medicine cabinet for that bottle of OxyContin or Vicodin, left over from your surgery last summer, seems like a quick fix for the pain.  It’s simply easier to dull the pain than to deal with it. When you do this, you’re trading one type of suffering for another.

Rather than using drugs and alcohol, consider reaching out to a mental health professional, a grief counselor, or a member of the clergy to get help in addressing the source of your emotional suffering. Understand that, regardless of the cause of your pain, you aren’t the first one to go through it and there are people out there who can help you through the process of dealing with it.

If you are currently self-medicating, a quality rehabilitation or outpatient treatment center will also be equipped with professionals with the skill and training necessary to address your substance abuse issues as well as the emotional trauma that drove you to use opioids in the first place.

According to Psychology Today, there are steps you can take toward your healing process: 

  • Honor your Pain
    • Don’t run away from pain. Take time to reflect and grieve. Time and patience are the key to recovery.
  • Reach Out
    • Avoid long periods of isolation. Reach out to friends, support groups, or twelve step programs. Seek peace of mind through prayer or meditation.
  • Take a Break
    • Take time to step away from your pain and find a way to escape into another reality. Write, read, hike, take long walks, help others, anything that forces you to redirect your focus away from your pain. Escape, even if it’s only for a while.
  • Learn From It
    • We’ve all heard the quote from Frederick Nietsche, “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” Allow yourself time to reflect and ponder what has happened to you. Don’t place blame or guilt, instead seek to find value in what has happened. Allow yourself to grow from your journey through this experience. Let it make you stronger for having been through it.
  • Move On
    • Life is always about moving forward. As you recover, emotionally, spiritually, and physically, search for your pathway forward, Clean, sober, and emotionally stronger.

Open yourself up to allowing others to help you leave behind the emotional trauma and the substance abuse that holds you back. Ask for help today

3. Bad Partying Choices

Everybody likes to have a good time, surrounded by friends, maybe having a few drinks, smoking a little weed; hey, what could go wrong?

Ever been a little tipsy, and a friend suddenly says, “here try this”, as they hand you a pipe or a pill? You’ve never tried anything like it before; hey, what could go wrong?

Partying with a new group of friends, you notice that they have moved from drinking beer to crushing up some sort of pill and snorting it. When you ask, they say it’s something out of someone’s mom’s medicine chest, a prescription for a hurt back. It sounds harmless. They ask if you want to do a line; hey, what could go wrong?

A lot could go wrong. A few of the dangers of combining Opioids with alcohol are:

  • Enhanced central nervous system effects
    • Suppressed breathing rates
    • Decreased heart rate
    • Decreased blood pressure
    • Suppressed neuronal firing (impairs your ability to think critically)
  • Potential Organ Damage
  • Increased chance of overdose
  • Increased drug absorption rate
  • Some opiates are more easily absorbed into the system when combined with alcohol
  • Increased potential for alcohol poisoning
  • Increased potential for long term health issues
  • Increased risk for addiction
  • Increased risk of death

America’s party culture is hard to ignore.  We’re fun-loving people who like to have a good time and get loose. However, when setting out to have a good time, it’s important to set guidelines to protect yourself.

Take a look at these safe partying tips from Washington and Lee University.

1. Try to attend parties in a group of friends

2. Moderate your drinking, alternating alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks

3. Watch each other’s backs

4. Avoid drinking games

5. Eat before going out partying

6. Use a designated driver. This person can also serve to watch over others who are partying

7. Don’t smoke or take anything from anyone unknown to you, or if what is offered is unfamiliar

8. Never be afraid or embarrassed to say “no thanks”

4. Simple Curiosity

The natural curiosity of teenagers regarding new experiences is one of the leading causes of opioid use among the younger generation. When combined with the “invincibility” of the teen mindset, the risk for addiction is high. 

Although teens, and even older adults, often believe that they can control their drug use, the physical sensations from opiates, both legal and illicit, can be overwhelming and stronger than the user anticipates. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the most commonly abused opiates used by teens are Vicodin and OxyContin, mostly due to the ease of acquiring them from a family member’s prescription or from peers.

Note these statistics from the same 2014 study, regarding high school seniors:

  • 1% have used heroin in their lifetime
  • 3% have used OxyContin in the past year
  • 8% have used Vicodin in the past year

One additional danger is that teens are more likely to combine opiate use with alcohol, a combination that can result in severe respiratory depression, resulting in death.

When you try opioids for the first time, the release of endorphins into the body, mutes your perception of pain, while increasing the sensation of well-being. This is the trap of opioid abuse. Coming down off an opiate high doesn’t feel nearly as good as it did when it began, so your body starts to want that feeling back, encouraging you to find it once again. This is where addiction usually starts. Eventually, it’s no longer your choice of whether or not to use an opiate. The pleasure center in your brain wants that feeling so badly, that it overpowers your ability to refuse it. Those that fall into this process are now one of the 1.7 million opioid misusers in America, simply because they wanted to know how it feels to try Oxy, or Vicodin, or heroin at one point in their life.

5. Gateway Drugs

A gateway drug is a drug, whether legal or illegal, that becomes a chemical pathway to a more dangerous drug. Common examples are nicotine, alcohol, and marijuana. All commonly accepted and used in modern society.

Not everyone who uses the previously mentioned drugs will go on to experience a problem with further substance abuse. In fact, most users never progress beyond normal use. However, some do. Those who are currently using any of these substances, need to be acutely aware of the potential of moving from use to abuse.

Of even more concern is the use of prescription opioids as a gateway to illicitly acquired opiates, including heroin. Where once marijuana was considered the most widely accepted gateway drug, the use of prescription opiates may be even more of a threat. Easily acquired, powerful, and very addictive, they serve as a stepping stone to more powerful prescription medications, as well as heroin.

Interestingly, there is some support for Workers Comp claim injuries acting as a gateway, due to the length of time that opioids are taken after initial injury. According to HealthDay, nearly 30% of injured workers continue to take their opioid painkillers for more than three months after their initial injury. This is far longer than the three days suggested for opioid use after an injury. In addition, other factors impact workers comp as a stepping stone to addiction:

  • The tendency of doctors to fail to try to manage injury pain using non-opioid medications, before prescribing opioids
  • Older workers are at a greater risk of this pathway to addiction
  • An annual income above $60,000 per year

 Although marijuana continues to be a heavily debated and studied issue, there’s little denying that hanging out with other marijuana users, will likely bring you into contact with other illicit drugs, providing both opportunity and temptation to try stronger drugs.

Closing Thoughts

Addiction is a subtle master, slowly drawing you under its’ control by using your own senses against you; the release from pain, the mellow pleasure you get from the drugs you are taking, even as it begins to exert influence over all the aspects of your life, your job, relationships, financial security, and ultimately your health.    

The University of Michigan’s Health Blog provides these signs that you or someone you know may be suffering from opioid addiction:

  • Taking a substance in larger or longer amounts than intended
  • Unsuccessful efforts to curb or control substance use
  • Excess time spent obtaining, using or recovering from a substance
  • Craving or strong urge to use the substance
  • Repeat failure to fulfill work, home or school obligations
  • Continued opioid use despite related social or interpersonal problems
  • Withdrawal from social, occupational or recreational activities
  • Recurrent substance use in physically hazardous situations
  • Continued use despite a persistent physical or psychological issue
  • A need for more substance to achieve intoxication
  • Withdrawal symptoms are evident

If you recognize any of these symptoms in yourself or someone you care about, it’s time to seek professional assistance. View our treatment locations and contact us, or talk to a specialty healthcare provider that specializes in opioid addiction treatment and rehabilitation.