New study links opioid epidemic to childhood emotional abuse

March 14, 2017
New research suggests that emotional abuse may be at the root of the problems suffered by many opioid addicts, a finding that signals new treatment approaches. Credit: Brian Jenkins

A study by researchers at the University of Vermont has revealed a link between adult opioid misuse and childhood emotional abuse, a new finding that suggests a rethinking of treatment approaches for opioid abusers.

To uncover the link to , the study, published in the current issue of Addictive Behaviors, analysed and cross referenced the results of a series of psychological tests administered to a sample of 84 individuals with a history of problem opioid use who had also suffered childhood trauma.

Earlier research has found that a high percentage of adults who abuse substances were maltreated in a variety of ways as children. But few previous studies have investigated the causes of opioid addiction specifically, and no earlier ones narrowed the link among to emotional abuse.

Emotional abuse was much more strongly correlated with survey participants' problem opioid use than childhood sexual and physical abuse or other kinds of maltreatment such as neglect.

The study found that children who had been emotionally abused were more likely to engage in rash, risky behavior in adolescence and to suffer posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as adults. Opioid use offered a refuge from PTSD for this group—while causing a host of new problems. The severity of the PTSD was directly linked to the severity of their opioid-related problems.

"If a person is being physically or sexually abused, it's easier to put the blame on the person doing the abuse," said Matthew Price, assistant professor in Department of Psychological Science at the University of Vermont, and the paper's senior author.

"With emotional abuse, the abuser is saying 'You are the problem.' Being called names, being told you're not good enough, being told no one cares about you undermines your ability to cope with difficult emotions. To protect themselves from strong emotions and from trauma cues that can bring on PTSD symptoms, people with this kind of childhood experience frequently adopt a strategy of avoidance, which can include opioid use."

New treatment approaches

The findings suggest why some opioid abusers don't respond to substance abuse counseling or PTSD treatment and point the way toward potentially more productive therapies. Drug addiction and mental health issues are often treated separately by different kinds of specialists, Price said. "Mental health counselors will frequently say, 'Deal with your drug issues first, then come to see me.'"

The study suggests "we should really start to explore more integrated treatment," Price said. "If a patient has had severe emotional abuse and they have a tendency to act out when they're feeling upset, and then they turn to opioids to deal with the resulting PTSD, it makes sense to address the emotional component and the drug problems at the same time."

In the study, participants were interviewed about their childhood experiences and then given a battery of that measured the type and extent of any maltreatment they had experienced as children, the extent to which their opioid use was causing life problems, the severity of their addiction, the extent of their impulsive behavior, and the extent and severity of their PTSD.

The researchers used a sophisticated statistical method known as structural equation modeling, or SEM, to make connections between the data sets each of the individual tests brought to light, which illuminated the pathway from childhood emotional abuse to rash adolescent behavior to PTSD to opioid abuse.

Explore further: Active prefrontal brain function appears to protect against PTSD after child abuse

Related Stories

Active prefrontal brain function appears to protect against PTSD after child abuse

April 21, 2016
Increased activation of the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain that regulates complex cognitive, emotional and behavioral functioning, appears to protect against post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in individuals ...

Abuse in childhood tied to migraines in adulthood

December 24, 2014
(HealthDay)—Adults who experienced childhood abuse or neglect have a higher risk of migraine headaches, suggests a study published online Dec. 24 in the journal Neurology.

Team reports on study of waitlisted opioid-dependent adults

December 21, 2016
In rural states like Vermont, opioid-dependent adults desperate for treatment often find themselves stuck on a wait list, sometimes for eight months or more, increasing their risk of continuing to use illicit opioids, contract ...

Significant pain increases the risk of opioid addiction by 41 percent

July 22, 2016
What do we really know about the relationship between the experience of pain and risk of developing opioid use disorder? Results from a recent study - the first to directly address this question—show that people with moderate ...

Study links domestic abuse to mental health problems in new mothers

April 14, 2014
A new study shows that domestic abuse is closely linked to postpartum mental health problems, including depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), in mothers. The research also found that specific types of abuse ...

US to raise cap for docs prescribing opioid addiction drug

July 6, 2016
The Obama administration is increasing the number of patients whom doctors can treat for opioid addiction with a medication called buprenorphine.

Recommended for you

Mind-body therapies immediately reduce unmanageable pain in hospital patients

July 25, 2017
Mindfulness training and hypnotic suggestion significantly reduced acute pain experienced by hospital patients, according to a new study published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine.

Study suggests ending opioid epidemic will take years

July 20, 2017
The question of how to stem the nation's opioid epidemic now has a major detailed response. A new study chaired by University of Virginia School of Law Professor Richard Bonnie provides extensive recommendations for curbing ...

Team-based model reduces prescription opioid use among patients with chronic pain by 40 percent

July 17, 2017
A new, team-based, primary care model is decreasing prescription opioid use among patients with chronic pain by 40 percent, according to a new study out of Boston Medical Center's Grayken Center for Addiction Medicine, which ...

Private clinics' peddling of unproven stem cell treatments is unsafe and unethical

July 7, 2017
Stem cell science is an area of medical research that continues to offer great promise. But as this week's paper in Science Translational Medicine highlights, a growing number of clinics around the globe, including in Australia, ...

Popular heartburn drugs linked to higher death risk

July 4, 2017
Popular heartburn drugs called proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) have been linked to a variety of health problems, including serious kidney damage, bone fractures and dementia. Now, a new study from Washington University School ...

Most reproductive-age women using opioids also use another substance

June 30, 2017
The majority of reproductive-age and pregnant women who use opioids for non-medical purposes also use at least one other substance, ranging from nicotine or alcohol to cocaine, according to a University of Pittsburgh Graduate ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.