The Landscape of Addiction in 2017

addiction opioidsOne of my favorite activities is reading. I read a wide variety of things, some of the most interesting things come from magazines that are not medical. Time magazine regularly has interesting stories of health.  Science, a bi-weekly publication, routinely has articles on a wide range of subjects that challenge the core of what one thought was fact. National Geographic regularly throws in medical stories. A couple years ago they had a great summary on marijuana, and recently now they had a great article on addiction. Medical journals are often a somewhat dry and boring read, but they do allow one to keep up-to-date with current research. Sometimes these other magazines have extremely valuable information as well.

The September 2017 National Geographic lead story is on The Science of Addiction. The problem is more than just opioids, it is a vast variety of problems from smoking to gambling and including all kinds of drugs. Addiction is a very complex process in the brain, and is definitely a disease and not a moral failing. Different types of addictions may affect a variety of brain regions. The processes involve disruptions in pathways responsible for learning, emotion, desire, regulation, and cognition among many neural events. It can change chemical, hormonal, and electrical paths in the brain. Addiction becomes abnormal learning in the brain with the reward being the addictive activity.

Addiction And Our Brains

All addiction has its roots in the primitive regions of the brain. They have to do with our need to survive, and they all involve our senses like sight, smell and taste. Critical in addiction is the neurotransmitter dopamine and that stimulates brain motivation. Those lacking dopamine often are depressed. Further, Parkinson’s disease has a lack of dopamine, and when given to some patients, it causes problems with an addiction like gambling. When something is addictive, it stimulates the dopamine pathways in the brain and is a very positive reward. The dopamine reward is so strong in the brain, people lose the control of impulses and the ability to inhibit behavior even if it is self-destructive.  

Since there are many things that are now considered true addictions, it is likely there are many different strategies to treat them. For drugs, often there are medications that can block the pleasure from the drug and prevent withdrawals. For alcohol, there are drugs that make drinking nauseating. There are also numerous counseling strategies and psychological-type interventions to deal with the behavioral components of addiction. There are also some new novel strategies including electrical and magnetic stimulation of specific areas of the brain to treat addiction.

The problem of drug addiction or any type of addictive behavior is caused by abnormal function and rewards in the brain. Pain and the problems associated with the medications taken can cause addiction, but this isn’t always the case. Taking opioid medications does lead to dependence and tolerance of the drugs that cause them to lose effectiveness. Opioids can also change a person’s sensitivity to pain and make a person perceive pain sensations more intensively. Therefore, in general, opioid medications have many downsides.

Lastly, opioids can be addictive and cause typical addiction issues in pain patients, but it is in only in a small percentage, somewhere between 5-20%. In most chronic pain patients, addiction and problems with opioids are generally not a typical problem. Treatment in pain patients is the same as with any other person who has opioid problems, and is often best handled by a pain care specialist.  If you are a pain patient on opioids, and taking your medication has become the focus of your life, then it is probably time for one to be treated for addiction and be off of these medications.

Understanding Opioids, Addiction and Naloxone

opioids safety drugsChronic pain patients have a multitude of possible treatments available for the management of symptoms. Strategies often include exercise, physical therapy, chiropractic care, massage, injections and medications. One of the more frowned upon treatments is opioids, but sometimes they are used successfully. With the current opioid crisis, many pain patients fear using them and want to be safe if they have them in their possession.

Opioid Safety

The most important rule with regards to use of any medication, especially opioids, is to never take more than what has been prescribed. Opioids can build up in the body and suddenly become deadly if too much is taken. Running out early can cause opioid withdrawal syndrome and while it is uncomfortable, it is not dangerous to your health. If you are taking opioids, expect your doctor to closely monitor your medication and behavior while taking these drugs. Since they are highly addictive and abused, most doctors will tightly control prescriptions and refills. Drug testing, opioid contracts, behavior screenings, depression screenings and monitoring of other medications are standard. Mixing of medications like sedatives, anti-anxiety treatments like benzodiazepines, and using any street drugs often will lead to ending a prescriptions for opioids, and often there is zero tolerance of any safety rules due to the extreme danger inherent with opioid misuse.

Mixing Street Drugs and Opioids

The latest step in opioid safety is the prescribing of naloxone in addition to the opioid. Naloxone is a drug that can block the opioid receptors for most opioid-type drugs, and it can prevent an accidental or purposeful overdose. In Minnesota it can be obtained at most pharmacies even without a prescription, and can be given effectively as either an injection or as an intranasal spray. Anyone who is routinely taking an opioid or has opioid medications in the home should likely have naloxone too, in case they accidentally or purposefully take too much, or someone else takes their medications. If you are on these medications, ask your doctor about having a safety prescription for naloxone.

Using street drugs for an addiction to opioids or for pain is high-risk behavior. The singer Prince was using Percocet obtained from street sources to control his hip joint pain. The Percocet he obtained had allegedly been mixed with fentanyl, which is an extremely potent opioid and caused his overdose death. If you are addicted to opioids, are using them to get high, use heroin, or have family or friends that is misusing opioids, you can obtain naloxone and this may save someone from an overdose death.

Successful Opioid Treatment

Opioids can be helpful in treating pain, but they are extremely difficult to use due their limited safety. More physicians are very reluctant to prescribe these medications and their long-term efficacy and safety is limited. More information has become available on how opioids actually tend to increase pain over time versus being helpful. Pain management specialists will work with patients to find alternative strategies to these dangerous medications.  

One last issue with regards to all medications, especially opioids, is how to dispose of unused or outdated prescriptions. In the past, medications were often flushed down the toilet or thrown out in the trash. The environment does not do well with those methods, and it tends to lead to contamination of our waterways and ground water. Freshwater fish are starting to show significant levels of some commonly disposed medications. The best way to get rid of unwanted medications is to bring them to your local police or sheriff’s department where they have disposal lock boxes. These medications then are handled as hazardous waste and usually incinerated at high temperatures to completely destroy them and turn it to relatively safe ash.

If you’re struggling with an opioid addiction or want a doctor to help get to the bottom of your pain, contact Dr. Cohn today.

Opioids – Understanding Dependence Vs. Addiction

addiction dependenceAnother misleading article appeared in the paper again last week, this time it is again about the opioid crisis. The headline gets the story wrong, and is truly misleading. It says in the headline “Third of long-term opioid users addicted”. The story is from the Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation survey of 622 users of opioids for over two months. In the article it states one third of users are either addicted or dependent on these powerful painkillers. The critical information is in one word that was left out headline and it was the word “or”. Addiction and dependence are two very different things, and two-thirds of the people had neither of the problems. Deaths from opioids are indeed a crisis, as the yearly total of opioid deaths are in the region of 30,000 in the United States – about the same as the number killed by either auto accidents or gun violence.

Chronic Pain

Chronic pain is an extremely difficult medical problem. Pain is caused by hundreds of issues and there is no simple solution to many of the problems related to pain. It is not a glamorous condition, and despite the deaths related to opioids, not much is being done to find better treatments for pain. There has been little government support for finding treatments to pain while billions are being spent to treat addicts. There are no moonshots or big government programs to fund research into better treatments for pain. With a third of the population in the world dealing with pain, it is a wonder why so little is spent on finding solutions.

Addiction Vs. Dependence

To understand the article noted above, knowing addiction and dependence are two different things is incredibly important. Dependence is a condition where the body becomes adapted to a chemical, and if the compound is stopped, then the body goes through withdrawals from that compound. There are a number of compounds like this that are medicines including anxiety drugs and many others. Addiction is a primary, chronic disease of brain reward, motivation, memory and related circuitry. In addiction there is an inability to abstain from behaviors that are detrimental to one’s physical and emotional health.

People who have chronic pain may use opioids to control symptoms and allow for increased daily functions. If they have been on the medications for a long time, then they may or may not be dependent on them physically. If they are suddenly stopped, and you are dependent, the body would go through withdrawals. Understanding pain and dependence is a medical problem and treated best by experts in Physiatry and Pain Medicine.

Addicts use a medicine like opioids for pain relief, but mostly they are used for the pleasure it creates in the brain. They crave the reward it gives and will do whatever it takes to obtain pleasure even if it is causing physical, legal, behavioral, or emotional destruction. Addicts are unable to control their cravings and will continue the activity despite the harm it is causing. The number of pain patients that are truly addicts alone range from estimates at about 5-7% to about 17%. The addicts are usually those who are using pain medicines illegally and are dying. Understanding addicts and treatment is a Psychiatry and Addiction Medicine problem.

Finding a Solution to the Pain

Chronic pain affects a third of the world population. There are not enough good treatments available and the research in this field is poorly funded. Opioids can be a very effective treatment for some people, but they have many drawbacks. Most people can use these medications safely if needed. Addiction is a separate disease, and opioids have now become a tempting drug for many to satisfy their needs. Possibly the best solution to the opioid crisis is finding a solution to pain versus treating another cause of addiction.

The Devastating Consequences of Addiction

pain medication addictionAddiction is one of the leading concerns for physicians in the field of pain medicine. Pain management is a broad and complex field with a range of treatments crossing many different disciplines of medicine. When pain is chronic, there is often not a magical single solution or pill. Pain is managed – it may not be cured – and the patient will have to do a significant amount of individual work and treatment to keep the pain under control.

What is Addiction?

Addiction is a disease of the brain. It is often described in terms of the “4 C’s” of behaviors that are seen.  The four C’s are:

  • Loss of Control
  • Continued Use Despite Harmful Consequences
  • Compulsion
  • Craving

The first C is for loss of control over use. One pill is not enough, and the person will take more and more until they pass out. The behavior does not stop at one episode; it continues multiple times. The second C is continuing use despite harmful consequences. An addict may be hospitalized for repeated overdoses of medication. Some people steal medications of others, or sell their medications in order to be able to afford more drugs in the future. The third C is a compulsion to use a drug.  One may not have any pain, but continues to use the drugs because they want the “high”.  The fourth C is a physical craving for the substance. If they stop the drug, they will go into a withdrawal.  They will physically shake, become nauseated and have other symptoms.

Addiction is a bio-psycho-social issue. There are multiple circumstances that surround addiction, but a big influence is a person’s environment, which may stimulate addiction. If the people you associate with and the activities they participate in promote addiction, for instance hanging out at the bar drinking every evening, addiction can occur.

If a person has family members that have an addiction issue, genetically they are also prone to the same problem. Certain chemicals to the brain also stimulate addiction. Compounds that increase dopamine levels in the brain can cause a prone person to have problems. Opioids and some antidepressants affect dopamine and taking these medications can promote problems in an at-risk individual.

Addiction Prevention

Pain medicine physicians have many solutions to pain. Pain physicians are trained to recognize which medications may lead a person towards addiction, and to spot addiction symptoms at early stages. A physician will shy away from certain medications if they see that a patient has had a problem with medication abuse in the past. Prescribing drugs that are less likely to lead to addiction is one way to prevent addiction, but there are a lot of related prevention techniques that should be discussed and implemented by your physician.

If you have ever had a problem with addiction, a wise pain physician will help you find a solution to your problem and try to avoid a new issue. Pain is difficult to treat and it will take significant effort on the part of the patient and treatment team to develop a reasonable solution over time. New discoveries will also improve management. There is hope on the horizon.

Pain Medication Tolerance vs. Addiction

drug tolerancePain medications such as opioids and narcotics can be very helpful at relieving and managing pain. However, if these pain drugs are used in excess they can lead to tolerance and addiction. This article will investigate the similarities and differences of drug tolerance and addiction. Are they the same? Does one lead to the other? Read on to learn more.

Pain Medication Tolerance

Drug tolerance is a state that occurs when a medication dose ceases to be effective for a person who previously found the same dose to have a therapeutic effect.  A higher dose is then required to achieve the same previous effect.  Tolerance is a common phenomenon with many medications, especially opioids and narcotics.

Enzymes that metabolize a drug become more active over time as the presence of a drug becomes routine. These enzymes clear the drug out of the body faster and, as a result, it takes more of the drug to achieve the same previous therapeutic level.

Addiction to Pain Meds

Addiction to a drug is a physical and psychological state in which a person has a loss of control in their behavior and is unable to limit the intake of a drug despite negative consequences.  In addiction, the drug provides a positive, pleasurable reward to the brain.  An addict will seek out the drug even if it is ruining their health or involves illegal activity.

Addiction is a disease of the brain. It occurs with many drugs that stimulate the dopamine reward centers and is also seen with opioid medications and alcohol.

Dependence is usually coupled with addiction. When a person is dependent on a drug, they can function normally with the medication in their system, but experience a physical disturbance when the drug is removed. Opioid withdrawal can cause:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea

Dependence occurs with many medications, which is why many drugs have warnings not to suddenly stop taking the medication.

The Difference Between Tolerance & Addiction

The difference between tolerance and addiction is the psychological desire for the medication that occurs with addiction.  Many drugs can develop tolerance effects.  Sometimes changing the medication to a slightly different drug that is similar or changing the dose can overcome this issue.

Addiction is an abnormal craving for the drug since it gives the person some sort of psychological pleasure, and that the person will do anything to get the drug despite the consequences.  Those who are tolerant (and not addicted) can be withdrawn from the drug and do not crave it once it is no longer available.

Tolerance to a medication does not equate to addiction.  However, a person who is tolerant to a medication can also have addiction problems to the same medication.  If you have questions, you should talk directly with your physician and be evaluated.