Opioid addiction risk factors
Opioids are most addictive when you take them using methods different from what was prescribed, such as crushing a pill so that it can be snorted or injected. This life-threatening practice is even more dangerous if the pill is a long- or extended-acting formulation. Rapidly delivering all the medicine to your body can cause an accidental overdose. Taking more than your prescribed dose of opioid medication, or more often than prescribed, also increases your risk of addiction.
“Individuals between 18 - 45 remain at fairly high risk," says Dr. Geyer. "The male population is primarily at risk for most drugs of abuse, with the exception of the benzodiazepine, things like Ativan, Xanax. Those drugs are more female risk factors. Also, if you have a mental health disorder and that includes things like depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar — all of those are major risk factors for addiction and especially if you have a history of addiction before you were provided this opioid or other substance.”
The length of time you use prescribed opioids also plays a role. Researchers have found that taking opioid medications for more than a few days increases your risk of long-term use, which increases your risk of addiction. The odds you'll still be on opioids a year after starting a short course increase after only five days on opioids.
"If you have a lack of interest in participating in other approaches to pain management or symptom management, that could become a risk factor," says Dr. Geyer. "We do have other tools to use, both pharmacologic or medication related, as well as non-medication related. Things like biofeedback, physical therapy, occupational therapy are all options. Choosing not to engage in those activities could put you at risk for abuse."
A number of additional factors — genetic, psychological and environmental — play a role in addiction, which can happen quickly or after many years of opioid use.
Known risk factors of opioid misuse and addiction include:
- Family history of substance abuse
- Personal history of substance abuse
- Young age
- History of criminal activity or legal problems including drunk driving citations
- Regular contact with high-risk people or high-risk environments
- Problems with past employers, family members and friends (mental disorder)
- Risk-taking or thrill-seeking behavior
- Heavy tobacco use
- History of severe depression or anxiety
- Stressful circumstances
- Prior drug or alcohol rehabilitation
In addition, women have a unique set of risk factors for opioid addiction. Women are more likely than men to have chronic pain. Compared with men, women also are more likely to be prescribed opioid medications, to be given higher doses and to use opioids for longer periods of time. Women also may have biological tendencies to become dependent on prescription pain relievers more quickly than men.
Steps to prevent opioid addiction
Opioids are safest when used for three or fewer days to manage acute pain, such as pain that follows surgery or a bone fracture. If you need opioids for acute pain, work with your health care provider to take the lowest dose possible, for the shortest time needed, exactly as prescribed.
If you're living with chronic pain, opioids are not likely to be a safe and effective long-term treatment option. Many other treatments are available, including less-addictive pain medications and nonpharmacological therapies. Aim for a treatment plan that makes it possible to enjoy your life without opioids, if possible.
Help prevent addiction in your family and community by safeguarding opioid medications while you use them and disposing of unused opioids properly. Contact your local law enforcement agency, your trash and recycling service, or the Drug Enforcement Administration for information about local medication takeback programs. If no takeback program is available in your area, consult your pharmacist for guidance.
The most important step you can take to prevent opioid addiction? Recognize that no one is safe, and everyone plays a role in tackling the grip these drugs hold on loved ones and communities.