Fighting opioid addiction is a top medical challenge in Mid-Michigan communities

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Hamilton Opioid story 04 by Mark Rummel

Treating and ending opioid addiction is such a challenge in America each day that it seems impossible to defeat its deadly stranglehold.

But, the fight goes on relentlessly, throughout the nation in general and by the medical experts at Hamilton Community Health Network (HCHN) in the Flint area.

Dr. Tim Tellez, MD, oversees Hamilton’s opioid / medically assisted treatment programs, working with Staci Hines, the Director of Integrated Services, and Hamilton social workers and treatment counselors. As a Michigan Medicine doctor, Dr. Tellez wants the public to know several simple yet important points about opioid addiction:

A. It affects nearly everyone in America directly and indirectly, and
B. Everyone must help defeat this growing epidemic.

“People don’t realize opioid addiction is everywhere. It affects everybody,” Dr. Tellez says. “It is a primary care issue everywhere. It is a myth that just a few people have this very complex chronic disease.”

Opioid addiction is an equal-opportunity issue in our communities, he says, and it can affect anyone regardless of age, income, education or place of residence. “There is a lot of need in Flint, as well as throughout Michigan, and we are very busy fighting this.”

Physical harm and addiction, by way of powerful narcotic drugs, have caused problems for centuries, as people sought relief from pain, experts agree. The first morphine or opioid addictions were recorded during the Civil War in the 1860s and early in the 20th Century. Overdose deaths from prescription opioids began rising 30 years ago, and jumped 10 years ago when heroin returned to mainstream use.

In the last eight years, synthetic opioids such as fentanyl became more popular and visible since they could produce euphoric highs — but are deadly in heavy concentrations. Pharmaceutical companies encouraged doctors to prescribe opioids for pain relief, some too aggressively or without adequate supervision.

In the last 20 years, nearly 1 million Americans have died from drug overdoses — two-thirds of which were caused by use of prescription or illicit opioids, experts agree. There were more than 70,200 drug overdose deaths in 2017 alone, the most-recent recorded year. Two of every three of these overdoses involve opioids, the National Institute on Drug Abuse says.

It often starts simply enough — doctors prescribe a painkiller for patients after an injury or surgery. In some people, their body tolerates the dose they have been prescribed — and they need more medication to relieve the pains, which can lead to dependency.

Experts still try to understand why some patients become addicted to these medications, while others do not. The Drug Abuse Institute estimates more than 2 million Americans abuse opioids today, and that number is growing quickly.

When someone who has become dependent on a prescription narcotic painkiller stops using it, they often experience withdrawal symptoms which can include restlessness, anxiety, anger, difficulty concentrating, depression, muscle or bone pain, nausea and more. Many times, they take more medication trying to relieve those feelings.

“Opioids can make your brain and body believe the drug is necessary,” says HCHN treatment counselor Albert Ujkaj. “If your dependent, your brain will need the drug just to feel normal. Addition takes hold of our brains in ways we can’t control. It is far more complex than many people realize,” Ujkaj says.

“We’re seeing more and more people of all ages who never thought they’d be affected by drug addiction fighting for their sobriety and ultimately, their lives,” Ujkaj says. “This crisis does not discriminate.”

In extreme cases, people steal prescription drugs from other family members or strangers, or resort to buying or stealing dangerous opioids on the street, still trying to eliminate pain or to experience more euphoric highs.

The public can help turn the tide, but much more help is needed, says HCHN’s Dr. Tellez. “We must recognize this is a problem which can be discussed with your primary care doctor and even at the dinner table. People need to know there are good treatment options, but treatment must continue. We must bring openness to opioid abuse.

“This is a very complex, chronic disease. It is always challenging,” he says. “We must break down the stigma of having addictions, and must be supportive of family members, co-workers and friends who are fighting it.”

Dr. Tellez estimates 20% of local people who need addiction treatment are getting it now. “There is a stigma about treatment, but that cannot continue,” he says. “We are here to help.”

There is no “cure” for opioid use disorder and abuse, Dr. Tellez says. But, more primary care monitoring and treatment are important to keep patients from becoming addicted.

Hamilton Community Health Network treats addiction with safer alternatives such as suboxone and vivitral, along with ongoing group support and individual counseling. In some cases, group support and addiction-fighting medicine treatments must continue for months or even years.

“Hamilton is using integrated care, social work, recovery coaches, nurses — our whole team — to treat our patients,” Dr. Tellez says. “Our regular clinic started more than a year ago and it is very busy now. We need more visibility — people coming forward saying they or their family need help.

“A treatment plan is needed for greatest success. We all need to help fight opioid addiction.”

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