When it comes to drug addiction and abuse, many people forget or do not realize the major reason why overdose isn’t the only concern: substance abuse can often lead to common opioid injuries as well. In fact, injuries from illicit drug use and abuse are not all that uncommon. According to one academic study on illicit drug use, injuries and emergency room visits, drug abuse accounted for more than a third of emergency room visits. In other words, in at least 35% of emergency room visits illicit drug use had been at play leading up to the injury. This makes it clear that opioid overdose is not the only concern when it comes to using and abusing opioids like heroin or prescription drugs.
“The common understanding of patients addicted to heroin or other opioids is that they either survive a high or die – but that there’s no real damage to those who get up and walk away. Increasingly, emergency room doctors will tell you that’s not the case. Many injuries from drug use don’t get treated because patients who are revived never come to the hospital, and those who do are driven by their addiction to leave the hospital quickly and use it again. That prompts another question for the emerging science of drug and overdose injuries: what is the effect of overdosing again and again?”
~ Martha Bebinger, writing for NPR’s All Things Considered
For perspective, the most common opiates and prescription drug opioids associated with the common opioid injuries discussed here include fentanyl, heroin, methadone, hydromorphone, and hydrocodone. While there are other opioids associated both with substance use disorders and opioid overdose, these five are usually considered the most dangerous when it comes to both injuries and overdose because they are synthetic modifications of the naturally occurring opium. Whether using heroin or abusing prescription opioids, there are at least three major concerns: the possibility of overdose, the risk of becoming addicted to the substance, and the likelihood of facing one of the common opioid injuries discussed here.
Signs of Opioid Abuse or Substance Addiction
The risks of opiate use are many and do not just include bodily injury or overdose. Before turning to the most common opioid injuries, it is important to understand the signs of opioid addiction or abuse. These can be dangerous in and of themselves, even if no external injury actually occurs. One of the most common opioid side effects is the development of a substance use disorder – or addiction. This class of drug includes all of the following:
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the most common symptoms of an opiate use disorder include:
- Experiencing a strong urge to use opiates or prescription drug opioids.
- Finding that you are unable to control or reduce the use of opioids.
- Difficulty in completing responsibilities at home or at work due to the use of opioids.
- Spending a great deal of money or time to obtain the drug.
- Slowly developing a tolerance to opioid side effects (that is, needing more and more of the drug to reach the same effects).
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when stopping the use of heroin, opiates and prescription drug opioids.
Out of all of these, one of the strongest signs of opioid addiction is the presence of withdrawal symptoms. This essentially means that your body has become used to the effects of the drug and become physically dependent on the substance as a direct result. Some of the most common opioid withdrawal symptoms include confusion, a runny nose, difficulty concentrating, and general flu-like symptoms. Seeing these are signs of opioid abuse and potential addiction. That said, one should use this description as a litmus test for addiction, rather than a diagnosis of a substance use disorder.
“Most drug addictions start with the experimental use of a drug in social situations. For some people, the drug use becomes more frequent. The risk of addiction and how fast you become dependent varies by drug. Some drugs have a higher risk and cause dependency more quickly than others. As time passes, you may need larger doses of the drug to get high. Soon you may need the drug just to feel good. As your drug use increases, you may find that it’s increasingly difficult to go without the drug. Attempts to stop drug use may cause intense cravings and make you feel physically ill.”
~ The Mayo Clinic
The Most Common Opioid Injuries
Now that we have a full understanding of the major symptoms of opioid abuse and addiction, we can turn to the most common opioid injuries beyond opioid overdose. The fact is, injury from opioid abuse is one of the lesser-known but just as risky opioid side effects. Injury from opioid abuse can be both external and external, including everything from broken bones due to risky behavior to lasting brain damage due to repeated overdoses on the drug.
“I would say at least 75 percent – every three of four patients who come in after an overdose – has some sort of associated injury, whether it’s a minor injury or major injury from that overdose. They often believe that they’re just fine and repeat the exact same circumstances that led to the overdose in the first place. And they’re definitely prone to repeating the same injuries we just talked about.”
~ Dr. Ali Raja, Massachusetts General Hospital
According to this doctor, overdose itself is only part of the danger when it comes to abusing opiates or prescription opioids. Some of the most common opioid injuries include:
- Short-term paralysis due to nerve damage
- Injuries to arms, legs, and other extremities
- Injuries from acting on ideas of self-harm
- Long-term nerve damage
- Injuries from car accidents as a result of drug abuse
- Broken bones as a result of increased risky behavior
- Frostbite from being unable to feel the cold
- Damaged lungs
In addition to the common opioid injuries already discussed, there is a certain danger associated with overdosing repeatedly over a long period of time. When someone overdoses, again and again, they essentially damage their brain. This is both long-lasting and makes treating addiction much more difficult. It also highlights the crucial point that common opioid injuries are not just broken bones or short-term paralysis, but lasting damage to both mental and physical health.
“One way to think about this would be that an overdose is like a concussion, where you have a traumatic injury to the brain. If the person doesn’t die, the brain recovers, but they may be, like with a concussion, more susceptible to a future event. And then there also may be cumulative damage that occurs.”
~ Dr. Alex Walley, Boston University School of Medicine
Opioid Injuries: Just One Risk of Opiate Abuse and Addiction
All of this highlights why it is so important to get professional help for opiate abuse or addiction. Going through detox from opioids can be extremely difficult, but taking this first step toward recovering from opioid addiction can go a long way toward avoiding the detrimental effects associated with the drug – including the common opioid injuries shown here. Injury from opioid abuse is a very real possibility as long as drug abuse continues. Thankfully, substance abuse does not have to continue thanks to the help of opioid addiction treatment plans, support groups, medical detox, and counseling. If you still have questions about common opioid injuries or how to get help for addiction, feel free to contact us today.
Martha Bebinger. (2017, April). What DOesn’t Kill You Can Maim: Unexpected Injuries from Opioids. Retrieved from: https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2017/04/13/523452905/what-doesnt-kill-you-can-maim-unexpected-injuries-from-opioids Vitale and D. Van De Mheen. (2006, March). Illicit Drug Use and Injuries. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16183213