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Who is Most At Risk to Abuse Opioids and Why?

It may not be a natural disaster, but it is a disaster: the United States is facing an opioid epidemic like no other. Over the past couple of decades, both opioid abuse and opioid overdoses have risen dramatically. This leaves us to ask two crucial questions:

  1. Who is most at risk to abuse opioids and why?
  2. How can we address the opioid crisis in this country?

Of course, there is no easy answer. When it comes to opioid abuse, nearly anyone could be at risk.

Who Does the Opioid Epidemic Affect in the United States?

From stay-at-home parents to Wall Street executives, opioid drugs hit everyone with the same strength. “In terms of abuse and mortality, opioids account for the greatest proportion of the prescription drug abuse problem.  Deaths related to prescription opioids began rising in the early part of the 21st century.” ~ Dr. Nora D. Volkow, writing for The National Institute on Drug Abuse There is clearly an issue with both heroin and prescription opioids in the United States. But who is at most risk to abusing these opioids? Why are people at risk of abusing opioids in the first place? Why are opioids addictive anyway? These are the questions we are here to address, among others. The short answer is that because opioid drugs are extremely addictive, nearly anyone who uses them is at risk of becoming dependent on their morphine-like effects. The long answer is a bit more complicated. But what is an opioid anyway?

Common Questions About Opioids, How Opioids Work, and What Opioids Are Used For

–    What is a simple opioid definition? What are opioids? The simplest opioid definition is a drug that acts on the body’s central nervous system to relieve pain. This includes opioid definition includes pain relievers, synthetic opioids, and heroin. –    What are the major opioid effects? What are opioids used for? How do opioids work? Because opioid drugs relieve pain by definition, the major opioid effects stem from this intended purpose. Opiates act as pain blockers, but all types of opioids (from heroin to synthetic opioids) also have morphine-like effects, inducing a kind of euphoria in the individual when they are abused. –    Which medications are included on an opioid list? The most common opiate medications that act on the opioid receptor in the brain include: codeine, methadone, hydromorphone, hydrocodone, and fentanyl. –    How do opioids relieve pain? People use opiates for pain because of the way the medication works on the opioid receptor in the brain. When it reaches the receptor, an opiate not only blocks pain, but also slows the body’s breathing has a calming effect. –    Does using opioids for chronic pain work? It’s complicated. While many doctors continue to prescribe opioids for chronic pain, the practice has become controversial in recent years. This is because there is some evidence that it may not work, and a great deal of evidence that this increases the risk of opioid dependence and opioid abuse.

Is Using Heroin Part of Opioid Abuse?

The short answer is ‘yes’. Because heroin is an illicit opioid drug, any form of heroin use is considered opioid abuse. “Heroin enters the brain rapidly and binds to opioid receptors on cells located in many areas, especially those involved in feelings of pain and pleasure and in controlling heart rate, sleeping, and breathing.” ~ The National Institute on Drug Abuse In other words, heroin acts on the brain much in the same way that any other opioid does. When a prescription painkiller (an opiate drug) is taken in a way other than how it is prescribed, it can have these same effects. Both heroin and prescription opioids are abused for the same reason: for the pleasurable, euphoric effects. But these effects don’t last long.

Heroin & Prescription Opioids: Part of the Same Problem

There is no question that heroin use is a large part of the opioid epidemic that the United States is currently facing. But this may not be for the reasons that you would originally think. In fact, the vast majority of people who abuse heroin only do so because they were first addicted to prescription opioids. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that almost 80 percent of Americans who use heroin misused prescription opioids before turning to the cheaper street drug. This makes it clear that heroin is part of the opioid abuse problem in the United States – but it may not be the root of the problem. It is no accident that Americans are nearly four times more likely to be addicted to prescription opioids than to heroin. This is where the opioid epidemic begins.

Who is At Risk of Abusing Opioids?

In general, there are two different groups of people at risk of abusing opioids: those using prescription opioids for pain, and those exposed to heroin and a kind of drug culture. By pure numbers, those using prescription drugs are at more risk of opioid abuse. The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that over 2 million people abuse prescription opioids in the United States. In contrast, just below 700,000 Americans reported that they had used heroin within the past year.

The Risk Factors for Opioid Abuse in the US

There are also more specific risk factors for opioid abuse. While not exhaustive, this is a partial list of the factors that may make an individual more likely to face opioid addiction and dependence:

  • The younger you are, the more likely you are to become dependent on opioids.
  • If you are male, you are more likely to face dependence on prescription opioid drugs.
  • If you are facing another mental disorder (like anxiety or depression), you are more likely to become dependent on opioids.
  • If you have a history of using more than one prescription opioid at a time, opioid addiction is more likely to become an issue.
  • Having a history of mental illness makes you more likely to become dependent on opioids or heroin.
  • If you are currently taking psychotropic medication, prescription opioids are more likely to be addictive to you.
  • Of course, if you have a history of drug or alcohol abuse, you are much more likely to become addicted to opioids.

Really, the question should not be who is most at risk of opioid abuse. Instead, it should be how can we help anyone who is at risk of abusing opioid drugs?

What Are Opioids Used For in Prescription Drug Abuse?

People typically begin using prescription opioids for a single, legitimate purpose: to block pain after a major injury or surgery. Doctors may prescribe strong opioid medication for several weeks, or sometimes even months, after these events. Of course, doctors also tend to prescribe opioids for chronic pain. This is pain that lasts over the course of years and decades, with the prescription opioids for chronic pain designed to reduce the discomfort. The combination of chronic pain and opiates has been a reality for many years now.

Avoiding Long-Term Use of Prescription Opioid Drugs

Unfortunately, no matter what legitimate reasons people begin taking opioid drugs or synthetic opioids, these hard-hitting medications are extremely addictive. Because of their morphine-like effects and action as pain blockers, many users find that they become physically dependent on the opioid drugs after just a few weeks of use. Because of their highly addictive nature, most addiction experts say that opioids should almost never be used in the long-term. Unfortunately, because of how opiates relieve pain, many Americans continue to use opioids for chronic pain.

Chronic Pain and Opiates: Opioid prescriptions have continued to rise, but CVS Pharmacy recently announced that they will start limiting opioid prescriptions to just 7 days. This is a good step in the right direction.

Addiction is a process. What starts as an attempt to block pain becomes an effort to just feel normal. Because of this, doctors generally discourage the long-term use of opioid prescription drugs.

Important: Avoiding the Risk to Abuse Opioids

We already talked about the risk factors of becoming physically dependent on or addicted to opioid drugs. But what can you do to avoid the risk of opioid abuse altogether? These are some specific measures that you can take to avoid opioid dependence in your life:

  • Follow the prescription information precisely.
  • Never take a larger dose of opioid medication or take opioid medication more often than prescribed.
  • Never use someone else’s prescription.
  • Avoid using opioid drugs with alcohol.
  • Be honest with your doctor if you have a personal history of substance abuse or mental history.
  • If you have a family history of substance abuse or mental illness, tell your doctor so that they can take this into account.
  • Ask your doctor if there are any non-opioid or opiate drug medications available to you as an alternative.

No Matter What: Getting Help for Opioid Abuse and Addiction

It doesn’t matter if you have been addicted to heroin for ten years or ten weeks. It doesn’t matter if you first started taking prescription opioids exactly as described, and then slowly fell into physical dependence on the drug. No matter what, one thing is clear: you need help to overcome this addiction. There is no question about it: opioid drugs are dangerous. With their morphine-like effects, pain relief, and the long list of opioids available in the United States, the opiate class of drug often presents more harm than good to the population.

What is a good opioid definition? How do opioids work? How do opioids relieve pain? What is an opiate vs opioid? What is a full list of opioids? Find out more opioid information on our website.

Thankfully, treatment for opioid abuse and addiction is readily available. Addiction treatment programs like an intensive outpatient program give those struggling with opioid addiction the opportunity to face the reality of their addiction. From there, they can create strategies and coping mechanisms for avoiding the reality of the opioid crisis in the future. We are here to help you through this process. If you still have questions about what opioids are, how opioids work, or what you can do to address opiate addiction, feel free to contact us today.