Health

Addictive Personalities? Not So Fast

With opioids, here's the real hook

“I was a soccer mom and a cheerleading mom. We always gave the block parties and pool parties in our neighborhood. I was a supervisor at the hospital — but I couldn’t just stand up and say I was a drug addict,” explained Tondra Blevins, a 57-year-old medical technologist in Charlotte, North Carolina.

During one such pool party, Blevins bent over to pick up a bunch of towels — and ruptured three discs in her back. Her husband found her paralyzed on the laundry room floor and rushed her to the emergency room.

“I never bought a single pill off the street,” one patient said.

Thus began a long, painful journey. Blevins visited regularly with a neurologist and pain specialist, and both doctors prescribed her powerful opioids to help manage her pain.

“If I wasn’t taking medication, I could barely walk,” Blevins told LifeZette.

But the line between pain management and drug addiction blurred as time went on and the doctors could not solve the problems in her back.

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She began visiting more doctors to increase her supply. “I never bought a single pill off the street. Once I got addicted, it was extremely easy for me to walk into three or four physicians’ offices and walk out with three or four prescriptions,” she said.

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This path to addiction is not uncommon, according to a new study from Columbia University. Researchers analyzed 34,000 adults over three years. The participants were asked to rate their pain and also provided information on other variables, such as family histories of drug, alcohol, and behavioral problems.

Those participants who reported moderate to high levels of pain were 41 percent more likely to abuse prescription opioids, regardless of age, gender, and family history. And it doesn’t seem to matter what kind of pain the patient reported — whether acute or chronic.

“These findings indicate that adults who report moderate or more severe pain are at increased risk of becoming addicted to prescription opioids,” Dr. Mark Olfson, professor of psychiatry at Columbia University and lead author, said in a release.

“In light of the national opioid abuse epidemic, the new results underscore the importance of developing effective, multimodal approaches to managing common painful medical conditions,” he added.

Prescription drug abuse in the U.S. has reached epidemic proportions, with 2.4 million users.

Prescription drug abuse in the United States has reached epidemic proportions, with 2.4 million users across the country. That averages to about 6,600 new users every day.

This is the first study to link pain to increased risk for opioid use — and it could unlock some treatments for those 2.4 million users. Other studies have focused on mental aspects of addiction. There has been a lot of research into addictive personality disorder, which often characterizes people as weak, volatile, compulsive, and uncontrollable. In reality, addictive personalities have never been confirmed with a unifying characteristic. They don’t really exist.

There may be some genetic markers that predispose a person for addiction, but research is confirming that drug addicts are not just morally weaker in mind or spirit. They may, in fact, be in real physical pain and left without effective coping mechanisms.

Dr. Timothy Huckaby, an addiction medicine practitioner at Orlando Recovery in Florida, believes the real trick is in treating chronic pain. Dr. Huckaby was a practicing anesthesiologist until he switched to addiction medicine. He believes we can create a multifaceted approach to pain management — one that includes pain therapy, carefully calibrated medications, and other practices like acupuncture.

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When he practiced anesthesiology, patients would not become addicted just because they had chronic pain — that was the medical standard. “The incidence for addiction among chronic pain patients will be much higher than we ever thought if this study turns out to be reproducible,” Dr. Huckaby told LifeZette. “It’s going to make us rethink the way we approach chronic pain.”

When Dr. Huckaby himself broke two ribs a couple of years ago, he handed over management of his prescription painkillers to his wife. When he didn’t need them anymore, she got rid of the extra pills. Because of his long work in addiction recovery, he has a healthy respect for what the pills can do and how they can ensnare patients, he said.

Related: Can Legislation End Addiction?

Tondra Blevins, on the other hand, was thrown out of her own house before she managed to make it through rehab. Now she visits an orthopedic doctor and a physical therapist. They treat her back injury without heavy medication.

Sometimes the pain is still bad and she has trouble walking. But her new approach is worth it, she said.

“The pain I have now — it’s just like swatting at a fly compared to how miserable my life used to be. I have my two children and three grandchildren. My life is better than it has been for a lot of years.”

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