How Prescribers Can Address the Growing Opioid Epidemic


In 2021, more than 106,000 people died of drug overdoses in the United State. Two-thirds of these deaths involved synthetic opioids other than methadone (primary fentanyl). 

It is important that prescribers not throw up their hands and stop utilizing opioids for pain as an attempt to limit diversion or the development of addiction, but rather sharpen their skills in recognizing patients who are at greater risk for developing a substance use disorder.

General Risk Factors

People of any age, sex or economic status can become addicted to opioids, however the following factors increase risk:

  • Family history (50% of your risk)
  • Mental health diagnosis (38%-69%)
  • Substance use at an early age
  • Inability to cope with stress
  • Poverty
  • History of abuse, neglect or past trauma (25%-75%)
  • Drug of choice and route of administration

Warning Signs and Red Flags

While general risk factors are important, be aware that sometimes individuals develop substance use disorder without any risk factors present. Below are a breakdown of aberrant behaviors and symptoms commonly seen in the hospital or office setting that are often overlooked.

Physical Symptoms

  • Sleepiness
  • Slurred speech
  • Pinpoint pupils
  • Nodding off
  • Loss of alertness
  • Slowed breathing
  • Presence of withdrawal symptoms (nausea, diarrhea, fatigue, muscle aches, hot/cold sweats)

Psychological and Behavioral Symptoms

  • Worsening depression
  • Worsening anxiety
  • Excessive mood swings
  • Erratic behavior
  • Loss of interests, activities and friends (isolation)
  • Angry or defensive if substance use is brought up
  • Problems at work
  • History of trauma
  • Financial problems
  • Legal problems
  • Chronic relationship problems

Office Visit Behaviors

There are several warning signs that may be present in how a patient interacts with office staff and office policies that staff may find challenging and actually point to a larger problem.

  • Frequent, missed appointments
  • Having multiple medical allergies to non-narcotic medications (NSAIDS, Neurontin, Lyrica)
  • Unwilling to sign a release for previous doctors
  • Bargaining for specific medications
  • Requesting higher dosages of medications
  • Reluctance to decrease or stop medications
  • Abnormal findings on physical exam (needle tracks)
  • Kicked out of previous offices or pain clinics
  • Family dysfunction or family history of addiction
  • Unwilling to sign ROI for significant other or family members
  • Being on multiple controlled substances
  • Multiple prescribers on MAPS (Michigan Automated Prescription System)
  • Different pharmacies on MAPS
  • Requesting early refills or losing prescriptions
  • Pain out of proportion to physical exam
  • As dose goes up quality of life goes down

Treatment for Substance Use Disorders

If you suspect increasing dependence or addiction, do not be afraid to refer to an addiction specialist for a second opinion. Also, remember to utilize community resources that offer HIV testing, syringe access and overdose prevention kits (Naloxone). Despite the magnitude of the current opioid epidemic, astute professionals can help their patients by identifying, adjusting treatments as needed and working with addiction specialists to reduce opioid addiction.

For help determining appropriate level of care or details about any addiction service in the Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services continuum, please call 866.852.4001.

Additional Resources


Substance Use Disorders: Identification and Treatment

Pine Rest Addiction Services’s John Budnick, PA-C and Bruce Springer, MD presented on the topic “Substance Use Disorders: Identification and Treatment” during our 2016-2017 Pearls for Partners lecture series. A recording is available; a passcode is required to view. 

The presentation provides information about the disease model of addiction; the neurophysiology, risk factors and behaviors; and treatment options including psychosocial treatment options as well as medication assisted treatment of both alcohol and opiates.


Understanding the Opioid Crisis: Addiction & Opiate Use Disorder


Understanding and Overcoming Opioid Abuse, American Psychological Association

* Leaving Pine Rest website

This article was published as part of our Community Partners newsletter for medical professionals and other professionals to discuss trends and advances in psychiatry and psychology at Pine Rest, mental health screenings, professional education opportunities and more. If you’d like the newsletter emailed to you, please visit our Community Partners page and sign up.

You are not alone! We can support you or your loved one at every step of recovery.

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