Opioid Addiction and Childhood Trauma—How are They Connected?

addiction and trauma

Opioid Addiction and Childhood Trauma—How are They Connected?


From all that we know, most people who battle opioid addiction have experienced childhood trauma of some sort. Intuition immediately tells us that it's just their way of dealing with pain, to help them suppress the effect of the unpleasant memories. But is that all there is to it? Not exactly.

Morphine is any medication used to treat or suppress pain. It belongs to a class of drugs known as opioid analgesics.

New research suggests that people who experienced childhood trauma naturally get a more pleasurable "high" when they take morphine. It's not just about suppressing the pain now, but their natural, neural response to the substance.


The Research

Scientists from the University of Exeter conducted a study on 52 healthy people -- 27 had a history of childhood trauma, the remainder had no such experience.

The 27 with childhood trauma were found to like morphine more, got euphoric, and even strongly desired to have another dose. Of course, this is the precursor to every opioid addiction.

On the other hand, the other 25 only felt nauseous or dizzy and weren't inclined to ever take it again.

Can we say that this is merely personal taste or preference? Does 25-27 people having the same experience from a particular drug not speak of a common attribute? It sure does.

One possible and very likely reason why people with childhood trauma respond this way to morphine is that childhood trauma affects the development of the endogenous opioid system (a pain-relieving system that produces our natural opioid -- and it's sensitive to endorphins).

It's possible that childhood trauma renders our natural opioid system inefficient. In that case, the system could become more sensitive -- satisfied -- when external opioid drugs are administered. It's like injecting insulin in an insulin-resistant patient.


The Implication

The scientists were motivated to carry out the study because of the known prevalence of opioid use disorder among people who suffered childhood trauma, such as abuse and neglect. The addiction is more like a consequence of what they suffered. It's like victims who end up being where they didn't want to be. They "desire" opioids not just because they like it, not just because they like misusing drugs, but because it's what their neural system wants as a response to the unfortunate incident they were exposed to.

So stigmatizing people with opioid addiction will be like hurting a victim a second time.

"When a baby cries and is comforted, endorphins are released," says lead author Dr. Molly Carlyle who led the research. Someone who doesn't get that desired comfort due to an undeveloped endogenous opioid system will find it in supplementary opioid intake.


Bottom Line

Many people battling opioid/heroin addiction today are people who suffered one trauma or the other during childhood. It wouldn't be very nice to stigmatize such people.

But even more importantly, that person might be you. Possibly, you're looking for the cause of your heroin addiction. If you've been exposed to a traumatic event in your childhood, there's help waiting for you.

Do speak with a licensed mental health counselor or psychologist near you today.

Satu H. Woodland, PMHCNS-BC, APRN Satu H. Woodland, PMHCNS-BC, APRN Satu Woodland is owner and clinician of Hope Mental Health, an integrative mental health practice located at Bown Crossing in Boise, Idaho. She sees children, adolescents, and adults.  Ms. Woodland with her background in nursing, prefers a holistic and integrative approach to mental health care that addresses the mind and body together. While Ms. Woodland provides medication management services in all her patients, she believes in long-lasting solutions that include a number of psychotherapies, namely cognitive behavioral therapy, exposure and response prevention therapy, attention to lifestyle, evidenced based alternative psychiatric care and spirituality. If you’d like to gain control over your mental health issues, call Hope Mental Health at 208-918-0958, or use the online scheduling tool to set up an initial consultation.

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