There is no denying the reality of the opioid crisis our nation has found itself immersed in. Addiction to opioids seemed to sneak up, stealthily gathering momentum until it reached a tipping point about five years ago. While this serious national health crisis is now being examined as government officials attempt to reveal the roots of the problem, one piece of the opioid epidemic that has not received enough attention is its impact on teens.
There are two primary reasons why a teen might become addicted to opioids. These include illicit recreational opioid abuse and addiction caused as a result of legitimately prescribed opioids for sports injuries or surgeries. It some cases these two converge, as excess prescription pills following an injury are often shared with peers at parties, or might be stolen by a sibling from the medicine cabinet.
Thankfully, much more attention is being paid now to the overprescribing of opioids by doctors, including to adolescent patients. There is no valid reason for a teenager to receive a prescription for 30 pills following dental surgery or a sports injury, yet that has been common practice. In reality, it is possible to become dependent on opioids in as little as two weeks of use. With pressure now being put on doctors to rein in their scripts, more physicians are returning to non-narcotic remedies for managing pain.
How Opioids Become Addictive
Opioid pain medication, including such drugs as Vicodin, OxyContin, Dilaudid, and Demerol, are commonly prescribed following an injury or surgical procedure. These drugs work by attaching to the brain’s opioid receptors, as well as nerve cells in the gut and on the spine. Once the drug has attached to the nerve cells it causes a flood of dopamine that blocks the pain source in the body, as well as providing deep sense of relaxation and a euphoric effect.
The brain responds by remembering the connection between the drug and the euphoric effect, setting up the reward system to repeat the experience: Pain pill equals good feelings. With repeated use of the opioids, the body builds up tolerance and the effects of the drug becomes less potent, causing the person to take higher or more frequent doses to achieve the original effect. This is how addiction or dependency to opioid pain medications occurs, regardless of whether the teen obtained the drug via a doctor for a legitimate reason, or acquired the drugs in other ways. Either way, repeated use of the drug, and using increasingly higher dosing, will likely develop into an addiction.
Signs Your Teen Has an Opioid Addiction
There are some signs that a teen is developing a problem with opioids. These include both behavioral changes and physical symptoms, such as:
- Severe drowsiness
- Mental confusion
- Constricted pupils
- Mood swings
- Chronic constipation
- Changes in sleeping habits
- Loss of interest or engagement in activities once enjoyed
- Hanging out with new friends
- Secretive behavior
- Money missing
- Prescription pills missing
- Problems in school, both behavioral and declining academic performance
- Withdrawing from friends and family
How to Protect Your Teen From Opioid Abuse
There are some practical measures parents can take to help protect their teen from accessing or abusing opioids. Some of these measures may include:
- If your teen becomes injured in school sports or has a surgical procedure, ask the doctor to only prescribe enough medication for a three-day period. After that, use a regimen of ice, acetaminophen or anti-inflammatory drugs, heat therapy, stretching, and physical therapy to help manage pain. Parents should dispense the drugs to their teen, versus allowing the teen to have possession of them.
- Teens receive drug education at school, but parents can reinforce it by initiating conversations about the dangers of drugs using current news stories or local examples, such as a fellow teen that may have overdosed.
- Parents who have been prescribed opioids should have the medication safely secured and out of reach to teens. Dispose of all unused medications as soon as possible.
- Pay attention to the friends your teen is hanging out with. Being exposed to drug seeking or using behaviors can have a powerful effect on a vulnerable teen, so monitor their friends.
- If a parent is suspicious that their teen is abusing opioids they can opt to give them a drug test. If the test is positive for drugs then sit down and calmly discuss the situation, asking where they are obtaining the drugs, how long they have been taking them, and consider getting professional treatment.
Teen Treatment for Opioid Addiction
When a teen has developed a problem with opioids it is a serious situation. Too often the opioid abuse goes on for months until the teen can no longer afford to buy the drugs and turns to heroin as a cheap substitute. Heroin addiction introduces even more dangers, as street heroin today is often cut with fentanyl, a deadly synthetic opioid that is 50 times stronger than morphine.
Residential treatment centers for teens would be the appropriate course of action for a teen with an opioid addiction. A residential program that is tailored for teens will typically provide a medical detox to help the teen through the detox and withdrawal phase of recovery in a safe, medically supported environment. Withdrawal symptoms can be very unpleasant and might include:
- Muscle ache and joint pain
- Nausea and vomiting
- Gastrointestinal distress
A medical detox provides medical interventions to assist with mitigating these symptoms and guiding the teen safely through the detoxification process.
Treatment for an opioid addiction or dependency will consist of a multi-modal therapeutic approach, including psychotherapy—both individual sessions and group counseling—and holistic and experiential activities. Residential programs with teen-tailored recreational therapies tend to engage the teens better, leading to a more successful long-term outcome. Family therapy is another key treatment element that should be included in a teen treatment program. Each teen should have an individualized treatment plan designed specifically for their recovery needs.
Following the residential program, it is essential that the teen continue to engage in outpatient therapy. Outpatient therapy, once or twice a week, can provide the added support needed in early recovery, helping the teen navigate challenges as he or she adjusts to life without opioids.
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