Most of the opioid addicts I have treated over the last ten years have been addicted to pills, not heroin. But information about prognosis and treatment of opioid addiction was gleaned from studies with heroin addicts. I’ve often wondered if the old data fits the new patients.
Over the last ten years, the number of people addicted to prescription opioids has ballooned. Prescription opioids are now more likely to cause or contribute to drug overdose deaths than heroin or cocaine. As prescription opioids outpace heroin in many parts of the country, scientists have wondered if there are significant differences between these prescription addicts and heroin addicts. Biologically, addiction to heroin or prescription opioids would appear to be the same disease, because both types of drugs are opioids, and opioids affect the body the same way. But do all opioid addicts respond the same to treatment?
In the latest issue of Addiction, there was an article describing a study that compared different groups of opioid users. The researchers described four separate groups: opioid users of only heroin, opioid users of only prescription opioids, opioid users of both heroin and prescription opioids, and drug users that used only non-opioid drugs. In this study, drug users weren’t further classified as addicts, abusers, or occasional users. (1)
This study of over nine thousand drug users found that users of both prescription opioids and heroin were more likely to use other, non-opioid drugs than the other three groups. These addicts seemed to have worse mental health issues than the other groups, too, while users of non-opioid drugs tended to have less severe mental health issues than opioid addicts of all types.
The prescription opioid-only addicts were found to use significantly more non-opioid prescription drugs, while the heroin-only addicts were significantly less likely than prescription opioid addicts to abuse sedatives and tranquilizers, like benzodiazepines, than the other two groups of opioid users.
This last fact definitely squares with what I’ve been seeing. So many of my patients are struggling or have struggled with benzodiazepine addiction. I wonder if opioid pill users are at increased the risk of overdose death when treated with methadone, compared to the heroin-only users of past decades.
This article, at the very least, shows there are significant differences in clinical features for at least three types of opioid users. It’s possible people who are addicted to prescription opioid pills have different prognoses and different responses to treatment than heroin-only addicts. Hopefully we’ll see further studies to guide our treatments.
1. Wu, LT; Woody, GE; Yang, C; Blazer, DG; “How Do Prescription Opioid Users Differ From Users of Heroin or Other Drugs in Psychopathology: Results From the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions,” Journal of Addiction Medicine, Vol. 5, No. 1, March 2011.