When Sobriety Is Too Late: Opioid Addiction

Recently, the death of music legend, Prince, reopened the conversation about opioid and heroin abuse in the U.S. Unfortunately, the number of Americans above age 12 who suffer from a substance use disorder seems to be only growing. Meanwhile, the incidence of death from prescription opioid abuse and heroin is starting to affect a demographic that has traditionally avoided the pitfalls of substance abuse.

Part of the problem with prescription opioid abuse and heroin in the U.S. has roots in increasing acceptance and use of prescription pain medications, and while these new trends are alarming, you can do something by understanding what is happening, recognizing the signs of prescription opioid abuse, what steps can be taken to prevent overdose-related death and educating your clients about this epidemic.


The Crisis in America

The problem only grows words with respect to “street” prescription drugs. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), multiple accounts have been reported of counterfeit pain and anxiety medications that contain fentanyl. These fake prescriptions may be marketed on the street as hydrocodone, oxycodone and alprazolam, but the addition of fentanyl is dramatically increasing the risk of overdose.

Overall, the abuse of illicit drugs, alcohol and tobacco costs the U.S. approximately $700 billion each year, reports ABC News. Additional factors in this crisis include the following:

  • In 2014, the year for which the most recent data are available, one in five young adults used illicit drugs within the past year.
  • Each day, nearly 8,000 people over the age of 12 tried using an illicit drug for the first time.
  • Addiction treatment services cost more than $35 billion annually in the most recent years, and this number is only expected to grow.
  • Out of 10,000 people, 35.4 visited an emergency department in a three-year period due to overdose, reports U.S. News.
  • The incidence of abuse has increased primarily in the Midwest to the tune of 109 percent among adults between the ages of 18 and 25.
  • Adults over the age of 26 experienced a 58-percent increase in the use of heroin concurrently.
  • The risk of heroin addiction is dramatically increased if people have a pre-existing addiction to prescription painkillers. Those in this affected group are up to 40 times more likely to become addicted to heroin.
  • Five percent of Americans above age 12 reported using prescription painkillers for recreational, nonmedical use in the past year.

This is an epidemic, and the only way to combat it lies in reducing the incidence of prescription opioid abuse in the first place.


Identifying the Signs of Opioid Abuse

Since the demographic of those who abuse prescription opioids and heroin has changed so drastically, health care and social services providers can no longer rely solely on these factors for identifying at-risk populations. As a result, social workers, case managers and other health care providers need to know and recognize the signs of prescription drug abuse and withdrawal.

Prescription opioids are designed for those in severe pain, such as the pain experienced following a traumatic injury or surgery. Those who abuse prescription opioids may exhibit common symptoms, reports the NIDA, which include the following:

  • Contraction of the pupils regardless of the presence of light.
  • Unusual or unexplained constipation.
  • Marks on the skin from injection drug use.
  • Unexplained pain in the muscles or bones.
  • Excessive vomiting or diarrhea.
  • Feelings of nervousness, anger or depression.
  • Insomnia.
  • Lethargy.

Although these signs are indicative of prescription opioid abuse, each client may exhibit additional signs or symptoms. These signs and symptoms are typically based on how the drug was ingested. However, any unusual health illnesses, complaints or mental feelings can allude to the abuse of prescription drugs.


Innovative Measures to Combat Overdose Rates

When a client is in the throes of a prescription or heroin overdose, few options are available. Naloxone, otherwise known as Narcan, is a medication that can immediately reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. As a result, advocacy groups around the country are pushing for nonmedical first responders, especially police officers, to carry naloxone kits while on duty.

This innovative measure has the power to save countless lives, but it is not without controversy. For example, some police departments have cited difficulties in transferring naloxone kits between officers during shift change, concerns over liability and personal beliefs as rationale for not using this measure, reports the Huffington Post.

Since case managers, social workers and other caregivers are vital in helping police learn how naloxone can prevent tragedy, you have a duty to increase the awareness of how these kits can be life-changing in the battle against heroin and prescription opioid abuse.

The other side of the coin in the battle for sobriety is treatment and funding. Funding sources are needed to help those with an addiction to prescription opioid or heroin attain sobriety. In fact, the Affordable Care Act, explains HealthCare.gov, mandates health insurance policies cover addiction treatment. Unfortunately, clients may be unaware of this fact or continue to be uninsured due to financial hardship. As a result, you must take on the role of locating funding for treatment.


Final Thoughts

Heroin and prescription drug abuse are real problems in America, but they are not inescapable and irreversible. Awareness is the protagonist in this epidemic, and understanding early intervention and treatment, including the use of naloxone by police, can go a long way in helping those with an addiction to opioids or heroin survive and thrive. Do not turn a blind eye to prescription drug and heroin abuse because sobriety is not too late, not yet.

Jason Vanover

Working in health care since 2005, Jason's body of experience encompasses dozens of care settings, including Senior care, psychiatric facilities, nonprofit health service centers, group homes for those with developmental disabilities and beyond. Jason understands the need to tailor his skills to each setting to encourage the best treatment outcomes and promote an inclusive, healing environment.

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