The Role Childhood Trauma Plays in Opioid Addiction

childhood trauma and addiction
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Addiction science has made great strides toward a more thorough understanding of the role neurology plays in addiction and recovery. Still, there are many unanswered questions especially in regard to addiction development and susceptibility. There’s a link between childhood trauma and addiction, and how it can lead to specifically Opioid Addiction. 

Scientists have approached their search for the causes responsible for addiction from many different angles in hopes of discovering relationships between the disease of addiction and a person’s social or biological environment and circumstances during childhood. We know that a child’s circumstances impact their physical development. If we follow that logic, then it is reasonable to assume that their circumstances would also affect their emotional and psychological development, and possibly contribute to becoming an addict.

The Link Between Childhood Trauma and Addiction

There is clearly a link between substance abuse and trauma disorders. Under the addictions of millions of Americans lie physical and emotional traumas. The co-occurrence of addiction and trauma is startling. The co-occurrence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with an alcohol use disorder is approximately 42%, nicotine dependence is close to 38%, and other drug use disorders involving cocaine, opiates, sedatives, stimulants and other substances constitute another 22% of patients (Pietrzak, Goldstein, Southwick, & Grant, 2011).

Nearly a quarter of all people addicted to opioids also suffer from PTSD, which is an astounding correlation. Some studies have found the harms associated with co-occurring PTSD and opioid abuse include an earlier age of addiction onset, longer durations of addiction, lesser educational and occupational functioning, more polydrug use, and decreased physical and mental health.

Studies have shown that prior to the age of 16, two-thirds of children in the United States are exposed to a traumatic event. These can include (but are not limited to) physical, sexual, or psychological abuse and neglect, natural disasters, sudden or violent loss of a loved one, community violence, trafficking, or terrorism. These traumatic events/circumstances can deeply impact a child’s development as well as their emotional and physical well-being.

For example, when a child’s ability to form safe attachments with their parent or caregiver is disrupted, problems will likely follow. An increased vulnerability to stress, inability to regulate emotions, or the formation of unhealthy dependencies are common issues. Children may also develop poor coping skills and engage in risky behaviors, including substance use. Some research suggests that opioids may be the preferred type of drug for individuals with histories of childhood trauma because they have the potential to numb both physical and psychological pain.

How Opioids Affect the Brain

Opioid abuse affects our brains in very specific ways. Chronic pain can lead to over-use of opioid analgesics and feelings of depression. Clinical depression increases the risk of developing chronic pain syndromes and over-use of addictive drugs. Use of addictive drugs often leads to depression during drug withdrawal and hypersensitivity to pain. Recognizing this challenging interplay, scientists in the Departments of Pharmacology, Anesthesiology and Psychiatry have been working together to understand how the nervous system processes sensory information and how that transmission is affected by chronic pain and mood disorders.

The human brain has plasticity, or the innate ability to respond and adapt to our circumstances, external stimulation and our environment. This ability, in addition to our biology and genetics, determine how our brains will respond to certain events or stressors.

When we are children, and our brains are still growing and developing, they create, strengthen and discard neural connections. These neural connections form the network between neurons that represent brain function as we understand it. Just like learning to speak, walk, or ride a bike, our external experiences and environment cause our brain to develop accordingly by developing stronger or weaker neural connections. Essentially, our experiences, both positive and negative, significantly shape our brain development and as a result the physical structure of our brains. Certain experiences and events are positive and cause our brains to develop in ways that are beneficial. Other times, negative experiences and environments can impede, alter, or even halt brain development.

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