A caregiver's guide to understanding and managing opioid dependence

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(ARA) - Caring for someone who lives with drug dependence can take an emotional toll. In many cases, the caregiver shoulders the burden of drug addiction as much, if not more so, than the user.

This is the case for Caren, who has supported her 29-year-old son as he struggles with drug dependence. Like many young substance abusers, her son's troubles began with a sports injury for which he received prescription pain medication. Treatment helped mask his pain, but he continued to take the medication even after the pain subsided because it gave him a high. Eventually, he turned to heroin.

"My son made several failed attempts at treatment. It was painful to watch him struggle for so many years and then hit rock bottom, out of money and living in halfway houses," says Caren.

A growing problem

Caren, her son and the rest of their family are not alone. Dependence to opioids - drugs derived from the opium poppy that include heroin as well as prescription pain medication - is a national epidemic: a 2009 National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that approximately 1.9 million adults in the U.S. abused or were dependent on pain relievers.

A chronic disease that can be treated

Opioid dependence may not seem like a disease to the general public - but it is. Research has shown that dependence causes changes in the brain that last even after an individual has stopped using the drugs. The drugs affect pleasure centers in the brain, causing intense feelings of joy that reward drug-taking behavior. For this reason, people who are dependent on opioids often find it very challenging to quit and those who do manage to quit often struggle with relapse.

"When all hope was almost gone, I knew we needed to take a new approach. I worked with my son and his rehab specialist to identify a new medication that worked for him," says Caren.

Successful management of opioid dependence most often combines behavioral treatment methods with scientifically proven medical approaches. It is important for people living with dependence to work with a health care provider to identify a customized treatment approach. There are a variety of options, including a non-addictive, monthly medication, but no single treatment is appropriate for all individuals.

After experiencing success on treatment, Caren's son decided to stop taking the medication, and suffered another relapse. He is now back on treatment and working with his care team to manage his disease.

"I have come to accept that it is a bumpy road to recovery," says Caren. "Treatment is a long-term commitment that involves the entire family and a dedicated care team. I urge caregivers to take advantage of all available resources to determine an appropriate treatment approach."

Did you know?

There is help for people with opioid dependence and their families. The following web link offers information about opioid dependence treatment, support programs and additional resources. Visit for more information.