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Study Examines Key Factors That Can Lead to Opioid Addiction

An addiction to opioids – or painkillers – has been a troubling phenomenon for hundreds of years. One of the most puzzling aspects of this trend is not that an addiction develops, but that it only develops in certain individuals. Not all people who take an opioid painkiller will develop an addiction to the painkiller.

To better understand this phenomenon, a new Geisinger study took a closer look and found that four common risk factors often exist in patients with a significantly higher risk of addiction. When a history of severe drug dependence and drug abuse exist, the risk is compounded even further.

In examining individuals dealing with chronic pain, the Geisinger study identified common risk factors, including age; a history of drug abuse; a history of depression; and the use of psychiatric medications. Among this group of patients, statistics show that painkiller addictions are as high as one in four, suggesting such individuals are more likely to become addicted to painkillers.

It is because of such findings that researchers recommend patients in chronic pain be assessed for these risk factors before painkillers are prescribed as part of their treatment. With the knowledge of the existence of these risk factors, doctors are better able to treat patients’ pain without creating an additional problem of addiction.

To complete this study, Geisinger investigators evaluated data on patients with back pain and other related orthopedic conditions who had been prescribed painkillers for more than 90 days. This evaluation included interviews with 705 of these patients who were willing to supply their DNA for study.

Researchers focused on a gene located on chromosome 15 that has been implicated in dependencies on alcohol, cocaine and nicotine in past studies. The associations of this locus with opioid dependence is unknown and therefore worth studying to better understand the association and risk factors doctors can easily identify to avoid contributing to the development of an addiction.

Family histories can also be evaluated to determine risk in patients with chronic pain. In fact, one study into this association examined 861 identical twin pairs and 653 fraternal twin pairs. An addiction present among an identical twin heightened the risk for the other twin. When the twins were not identical, the risk reduced, suggesting that 50-60 percent of addiction is due to genetic factors.

It is important to note that while genetics can play a role in whether or not an individual develops an addiction, there is no one addiction gene that can be inherited at birth. Instead, there are numerous genes that play a role in addiction and if these genes are found in an individual with the other risk factors mentioned in the Geisinger study, an individual could be at even greater risk.

Research continues to examine these areas of addiction to better understand why some people fall victim while others are never touched by the disease. As new developments in research continue to emerge, doctors are becoming better equipped at helping patients to avoid addiction when all they really need is relief.

Posted on September 2nd, 2010

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