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Would You Recognize the Signs of Opioid Abuse?

September 18, 2019

Seemingly everywhere we turn these days, opioid abuse is in the news. And for good reason—this growing epidemic affects millions of Americans.

But because addiction of any type is considered an embarrassment and often hidden from sight, it can be difficult to tell when someone is using opioids improperly. That only adds to the problem, since a person can go on misusing these powerful pain medications for a length of time without being discovered.

That’s why it’s important for everyone to be able to recognize the signs that someone is abusing opioid medications. We’re sharing some insight in today’s blog.

Michael Bryant, MD, internal medicine physician with West Tennessee Healthcare Primary Care Martin, offers answers to some commonly asked questions about opioid abuse. Dr. Bryant is registered as a practitioner who is authorized to conduct maintenance and detoxification treatment. 

Q: How common is opioid abuse?
A: It’s sadly very common in today’s society. In fact, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than 2 million Americans abuse opioids.

And opioid addiction can have deadly consequences. More than 90 Americans die each day from opioid overdose, and that doesn’t even account for all deaths that are at least somewhat impacted by opioid misuse.

Drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the United States.

These numbers have been on the rise steadily since opioids were originally approved by the FDA for the treatment of pain. In their earliest iterations, they were approved primarily to treat significant pain related to conditions such as cancer, but more recently, they’ve been increasingly prescribed for all types of pain.

That’s led to an increased number of people addicted to the medications after having been initially prescribed them for a medical reason.

Q: Who’s at risk of opioid abuse?
A: This is a bit of a trick question, but one with an easy answer—anyone who takes an opioid medication is at risk. That includes those who take opioids after being prescribed them, as well as those who take opioids that were not prescribed for them.

That said, there’s no single “type” for those who deal with opioid abuse. It can happen to any person who takes these powerful medications.

While any opioid user is at risk, some people are at an increased risk of this and other types of addiction. This includes people who have a family or personal history of substance abuse, an addictive personality, regular contact with high-risk people or environments, a history of or current mental health issues, and a thrill-seeking personality.

Beyond those factors, facing difficult circumstances, such as the loss of a job or the end of a marriage can also put a person at an increased risk of opioid abuse.

Women also seem to be at an increased risk of developing opioid abuse when compared with men. No one is quite certain why that is, but it’s suspected that women don’t metabolize these powerful medications the same way and that they are prescribed higher doses for longer periods of time. All of those factors can make opioid addiction more likely.

Q: What are some signs of opioid abuse?
A: Obviously, seeing a person regularly taking medications more than prescribed—or if they’ve not been prescribed at all—is a key indicator of opioid abuse. But more often than not, it’s much more subtle than that.

If you believe someone may be misusing opioids, keep an eye out for these factors:

  • Eating more or less than normal
  • Being overly enthusiastic, bubbly, or talkative
  • Having regular and quick mood changes
  • Sleeping at unusual times or for longer than normal
  • Demonstrating poor decision-making abilities
  • Letting personal hygiene habits lapse
  • Not showing interest in usually enjoyed activities
  • Spending more time alone
  • Demonstrating a lack of balance or coordination
  • Avoiding time with loved ones and friends


The key factor in the items listed above is that you’re looking for behavior that’s outside the person’s norm. Anything that’s unusual could be an indication that something’s not right.

If you or someone you know are impacted by opioid abuse, your best first step is to talk with your doctor, who can direct you to the help you need. Need a doctor? Fine one here. 

Want to hear more? Check out our podcast, We Talk Health. Donald Jordan and Mara Johnson are on talking about what services Pathways can offer, and how those services have been affected by Covid-19. Pathways has seen an increase in people seeking help for substance use disorder for alcohol and opioids, as well as for mental health issues. Pathways is still offering all services, though most are being offered via TeleHealth due to Covid-19.