6 Professionals Who Can Help Identify a Drug Problem

Medical Signs of Drug Abuse

With prescription drug abuse rampant in the U.S. and many people turning to heroin as a quick and easy substitute, what early warning systems are in place to help spot a potential or existing problem with drugs or alcohol? Equally important as the ability to detect a looming substance abuse problem is the opportunity for intervention or referral to professionals who can provide assistance to overcome the addiction, dependence or abuse. Here are six professionals who can help identify a drug problem.

Dentists Care for More Than Teeth 

A visit to your dentist involves more than just getting your teeth cleaned. Along with the X-rays, plaque removal and any necessary or desired dental procedures, patient care now often involves screening for problems with drugs and alcohol.

A recent survey on dental screenings for signs of drug use from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health found that 77% of dentists ask their patients about illicit drug use, while 54% of dentists surveyed said they felt such screenings “should be” their responsibility.

Some drug use is particularly damaging to dental and overall health, such as methamphetamine use. Meth users present a pattern of oral pathology that includes rotting and missing teeth, tooth wear, rampant tooth decay, and advanced gum disease, along with other dental and general health concerns. Such patients also ask about cosmetic dental procedures, which gives the dentist yet another opportunity to inquire about potential substance abuse and offer referrals to treatment.

Dentists, being the second-largest group of prescribers for opioid pain relievers, are likely to see patients asking for prescription painkillers that aren’t really necessary, report lost prescriptions, or only go to the dentist sporadically.

Primary Care Doctors Can Spot Looming Problems

Whether it’s you annual physical or a quick trip to the family doctor for treatment of a suddenly occurring medical condition, your primary care doctor is trained to spot more than the general medical concerns for which he or she was primarily trained. Increasingly, primary care doctors are stepping up to perform brief screenings to detect drug and alcohol use — and use the occasion to offer recommendations and referrals to treatment.

To help identify drug problems, doctors are using an evidence-based tool called Screening, Brief Intervention, and Referral to Treatment for Substance Abuse (SBIRT).

Hospital Emergency Department on the Front Lines

The professionals in the hospital emergency department are also in a prime spot to be able to conduct brief screenings for drug and alcohol use and offer referrals and encouragement for treatment as required. In addition to asking about what happened to bring you into the ER, doctors and nurses will inquire about any drug or alcohol use, how much, how often, any problems or concerns over use, etc. The answers to these questions will inform the treating professional, who can then make recommendations and provide appropriate care for the condition you’ve come to have treated as well as further referrals and advice as needed.

Researchers from the Loyola University Medical Center developed a 10-point questionnaire and found it to be 20% more effective than blood tests in detecting at-risk drinking behavior among patients that were seen and treated in hospital emergency departments for alcohol-related trauma.

The Eyes May Tell of Other Problems

Deteriorating vision and problems with ocular health give the eye professional (ophthalmologists, optometrists, eye surgeons, etc.) a window to speak with you about any potential problems that may be creating stress, inflammation, headaches, blurry vision and more. While these symptoms could be unrelated to drug problems, they are often indicative of issues that are either developing or in full effect.

Mental Health Care Therapists Are Good Screeners for Drug Use

If you’re experiencing anxiety or depression or another mental health condition, you may be seeing a psychiatrist or psychologist on a somewhat regular basis. In addition to discussing the primary reason you’ve entered into counseling, your therapist is ideally suited to look for signs or indications that you may also have a substance use problem.

You may, for example, find it’s difficult to cope with traumatic memories or are experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder and using alcohol or drugs as a coping mechanism. This maladaptive pattern of coping will not go unnoticed by the therapist, who will likely encourage other coping means, ask about drug and alcohol use, and offer recommendations and referrals so that you can get the help you may need.

Other Therapists May See Issues and Encourage You to Get Help

Acupuncturists,massage therapists, physical therapists and other types of therapeutic professionals may also notice signs of drug use and gently broach the topic. While they are not specifically trained in drug abuse prevention, they do see the effects of it in their clientele on a frequent basis.

For example, you may see a massage therapist or an acupuncturist for a recurring condition, or because you’ve experienced an injury and believe these therapies can help you heal. During your visit, you may say that the pain or discomfort has been more than you can bear and you’ve been drinking more than you usually do, or you’ve had to rely on painkillers more often than you’d like. If you display certain signs of obvious impairment or symptoms that indicate you could be misusing, abusing, dependent or addicted to drugs, your therapist may use this occasion to ask if you’ve thought about getting professional help.

Keep in mind that overall health is a balance of body, mind and spirit. When one or more (or all) of these are out of sync, problems become more obvious and can spiral into negative and self-destructive behavior. Getting help is less difficult if you remain open to making positive changes and accepting recommendations without taking offense or issuing denials that anything is wrong.

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