Veteran Opioid Addiction Treatment
For veterans, the hardest challenges don’t always arise in combat. Sometimes, problems with substance use can grow to the point of seriously disrupting your life. But if you’re a veteran struggling with opiate use, help is available to you, and a better life is within reach.
What Are Opiates and Opioids?
Many people use the terms “opiate” and “opioid” interchangeably, but they don’t mean exactly the same thing. An opiate is a drug that’s made from natural opium as found in the poppy plant. Codeine and morphine are commonly used opiates.
An opioid is an opiate or a synthetic drug made from an opiate. So in other words, all opiates are opioids, but not all opioids are opiates. Opioids can be natural, synthetic, or partially synthetic. They bind to the brain’s opioid receptors to create certain effects. Some of the most common opioids are hydrocodone (Vicodin), oxycodone (Percocet), and methadone. Heroin, made from chemically processed morphine, is an example of a semi-synthetic opioid.
Prescription opioids are primarily prescribed to treat pain. When these drugs bind to opioid receptors, they effectively block pain signals sent from the brain.
Binding to opioid receptors also releases large amounts of dopamine. This is what causes the sensation of being high, and it’s why opioids pose such a high risk of dependency. Dopamine is released from the brain’s reward center, so each time someone takes an opioid, they’re getting powerful positive reinforcement.
What Is an Opioid Use Disorder?
Taking opioids prescribed by your doctor in the prescribed dose is generally safe. However, using the drugs more frequently or in larger amounts might indicate an opioid use disorder.
It’s important to note that only a qualified medical professional can diagnose an opioid use disorder. But generally speaking, a person with an opioid use disorder will continue using opioids despite negative consequences in one or more areas of their life.
Do You Have an Opioid Use Disorder?
If you aren’t sure whether you have an opioid use disorder, it may be helpful to be aware of some of the signs. You may have an opioid use disorder if you’ve experienced at least two of the following:
- Developing tolerance–meaning that you need to take more of the opioid to achieve the same effect
- Experiencing physical and mental symptoms of withdrawal when not using opioids
- Stopping or reducing important activities because of opioid use
- Experiencing cravings for opioids when not using them
- Being unable to stop using opioids, or use less, even if you want to
- Continuing to use opioids even if they’re worsening mental or physical health conditions or damaging relationships
- Having trouble functioning at work, at school, or home as a result of using opioids
- Spending significant time obtaining opioids, using them, or getting over their effects
- Losing control over opioid use
- Taking opioids even when it may be dangerous to do so, such as when driving
If you want to stop using opioids but find that you can’t, you aren’t alone. If you find yourself in this situation, you might be ready to seek out a rehab center and talk to your doctor about the next steps to take.
Symptoms of Opioid Withdrawal
If you think you have an opioid use disorder and want to stop using, make sure that you consult a doctor before stopping abruptly. Especially if you’ve developed a high tolerance, discontinuing opioids suddenly can cause painful and even dangerous effects. Your doctor may be able to offer you a prescription to reduce withdrawal symptoms or recommend a facility for inpatient detox.
If you have a significant tolerance for opioids and then go without them for even a short period, you may begin to experience withdrawal. Here are some of the most common withdrawal symptoms:
- Shaking, fast heartbeat, or high blood pressure
- Stomach cramps, vomiting, and diarrhea
- Restlessness or insomnia
- Body aches
- Runny nose and watery eyes
The exact onset time of withdrawal symptoms will vary from person to person, but usually, they will start to appear within 12 hours of your last dose.
Health Risks of Misusing Opioids
Misusing any type of drug has the potential to get in the way of your functioning at work or school, damage relationships, and reduce your quality of life. But if you have an opioid use disorder, your health and life may be in danger.
Like other depressant drugs, opioids can slow your breathing to dangerous levels, especially if you take too much at once. Very slow respiration can cause brain damage and even death. Similarly, regularly using opioids may put you at risk of heart failure and other heart problems.
Frequently using opioids also can cause constipation. This might sound like a minor issue, and in some cases it is. But if constipation becomes severe enough, an intestinal blockage is possible and may require surgery.
While opioids are often taken to relieve pain, they sometimes have a paradoxical effect on your body’s pain response. As your body comes to rely on these drugs to relieve pain, it becomes more sensitive to pain in the absence of opioids. So over time, chronic pain may seem to worsen unless you take larger and larger quantities of opioid drugs.
If you obtain opioids illegally or aren’t sure where the drugs you take come from, you may be at additional risk of death or serious health problems. Powerful synthetic opioids like fentanyl can be lethal even in very small doses. Some street drugs may also be cut or laced with fentanyl. This is extremely dangerous as you may overdose on fentanyl without even knowing that you’ve taken it.
Opioids and Veterans
Opioid use disorders affect veterans and non-veterans alike. But veterans often have several risk factors for developing an opioid use disorder. Many veterans have chronic pain from injuries sustained in combat. In some cases, a doctor may prescribe an opioid to manage pain. If the prescription is discontinued or if the person develops a tolerance, they may turn to non-prescription opioids to manage pain. Since they continue to need more of the drug to get the same amount of pain relief, this pattern can sometimes lead to an opioid use disorder.
Some populations of veterans are at especially high risk of developing substance use disorders. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and opioid use disorder often co-occur in veterans. And in many cases, people with PTSD or other mental health conditions turn to drugs or alcohol in an attempt to numb some of the symptoms. This is especially likely if the disorders are undiagnosed or not adequately managed.
Unfortunately, access to treatment for opioid use disorders can be an issue for veterans. This is especially true for those who are homeless, and research has indicated that homeless veterans are more likely than others to suffer from opioid use disorder. But for those struggling to survive on the streets, finding and accessing treatment for a substance use disorder can often feel extremely difficult.
The VA and Opioid Prescriptions
In response to the high rates of opioid dependency and overdose among veterans, the VA has launched the Opioid Safety Initiative (OSI). This initiative was designed to give veterans non-opioid options for managing pain. Some of these methods are used alongside opioid therapy while others are used instead of it.
This program is good news for veterans in recovery from an opioid use disorder; it means the VA is committed to finding alternative ways to manage chronic pain. A life without opioids doesn’t have to be a life with constant pain. Here are some of the pain management strategies the VA has implemented:
- Targeted treatments like steroid injections for specific areas of pain
- Non-opioid pain relievers like anti-inflammatories, certain antidepressants that also target pain, topical pain relievers, and anticonvulsants that help with nerve pain
- Wellness practices like exercise, eating healthily, meditating, maintaining proper sleep hygiene, and engaging in hobbies
- Behavioral therapies that improve responses to pain such as cognitive behavioral therapy and biofeedback
- At-home therapies such as heating or icing painful areas, gentle stretching, yoga, or improving posture
- Social support like pain management classes or support groups for veterans or those with chronic pain
- Non-medication therapies like physical therapy, acupuncture, and transcutaneous nerve stimulation
Opioid Use and Veterans’ Benefits
Because of the stigma surrounding substance use disorders, many veterans are concerned that seeking treatment for an opioid use disorder may interfere with their health or disability benefits. But the good news is that undergoing treatment for an opioid use disorder or any substance use disorder will not get in the way of benefits, and VA benefits cover treatment for substance use disorders.
However, willful misconduct while in the military may disqualify you from receiving benefits. “Willful misconduct” means doing something that you know you shouldn’t do without caring about the consequences. If you engage in willful misconduct when using opioids while in the military, your veteran benefits might be revoked. A few examples of opioid-related willful misconduct include misusing prescribed opioids or taking them to get high, purchasing or taking illegal opioids or purchasing prescription opioids from someone else, and sustaining an injury as a result of being under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
In other words, taking opioids as prescribed while in the military won’t impact your benefits. Neither will seeking treatment for opioid use disorder as a veteran. But if you’re found guilty of willful misconduct and given a dishonorable discharge, you may not qualify for benefits through the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA).
How Does Opioid Rehab Work?
A good opioid rehab program will take a holistic approach to wellness. The first step is detoxification. Many rehab centers offer medically supervised detox. In this type of detox, you’ll receive medical support to help keep you as comfortable as possible while coming off of opioids or any other drugs.
Most rehab programs incorporate individual and group therapy to help you develop healthy coping skills to manage stress. Counselors can help you discover some of the root causes of your opioid use disorder too. Your genetic makeup can predispose you to developing a substance use disorder, but life experiences including childhood trauma can also contribute. Rehab programs will usually help you to address and cope with these experiences.
In veterans and non-veterans alike, mental health diagnoses can also make substance use disorders more likely. A good rehab center will be able to work with you to manage PTSD, bipolar disorder, major depression, or other mental health issues that you may have been consciously or unconsciously self-medicating with opioids.
Drug rehab can be an emotionally challenging experience as you’ll be asked to confront difficult or painful issues from both your past and the present. But this challenge is well worth it! You’ll be able to move toward a healthier and brighter future free from opioid dependence.
Finding the Right Rehab Center
In your search for opioid rehab centers, it may be helpful to look for centers with a focus on veterans or veteran-specific programs. Military veterans face unique challenges and risk factors when it comes to substance use disorders. Programs like ours can help you get in touch with an opioid rehab center that’s knowledgeable about veterans’ issues. An approach like this one will give you the best chance of success.
Taking the First Steps Toward Freedom
You’ve already protected the country’s freedom in the military. But now, you can move toward your own freedom from opiate use. If you’re looking for residential treatment for a substance use disorder or for mental health resources, reach out to us today. We can help you make the first step to a better life.