Substance Abuse Rates and Treatment Options for the Physically Disabled

The recent Surgeon General’s report found that an estimated one in seven U.S. adults will face addiction at some point in their lives. No is immune from developing this disease. It happens to men, women, the young, and the elderly. There are many different risk factors for addiction, as well as protective factors that can mitigate the risk of becoming addicted to drugs or alcohol. But for the physically disabled, these individuals may face more significant risk factors and barriers to treatment than the general population. For people with a physical disability that causes chronic pain, they may be at higher risk of abusing painkillers. When treating an individual with a chronic pain disorder for addiction, they need specialized care that accounts for their unique medical needs. 

What risk factors for addiction may be more pronounced for disabled people?

The risk factors for addiction facing the physically disabled will differ depending on the type of disability a person has. Some physical disabilities may result in limited mobility and an inability to maintain employment. For these individuals, the social isolation that can result may increase their chances of turning to drugs or alcohol to cope with the lack of support and friendship. In other cases, chronic pain may accompany a physical disability. For these people, relying on a prescription narcotics to deal with pain may increase their chances of becoming psychologically dependent and addicted to the drug. 

Many of the same risk factors that increase a non-disabled person’s chances of becoming addicted are the same for disabled persons. However, the disabled may face more of these risk factors at worse, or have to cope with greater severity of risk factors. Economic stress is a major trigger for substance abuse, but the disabled may face economic uncertainty and poverty at more frequent, intense levels than someone who is not dealing with a physical health issue. The physically disabled also face higher risks of becoming a victim of abuse, and they may turn to drugs or alcohol to cope with the trauma of these situations. Other risk factors for drug abuse facing the physically disabled include:

  • Increased rates of unemployment and poverty
  • Discrimination
  • Increased risk of mental health disorder symptoms
  • Chronic medical problems and chronic pain
  • Easier access to addictive medications
  • Social isolation
  • Caregiver enabling

Enabling addictive behavior tends to happen frequently in family situations where a member is addicted to drugs or alcohol. When someone is disabled and addicted to legally prescribed painkillers, it can be extremely challenging for caregivers to know what constitutes addictive behavior or drug abuse in a disabled person who needs the medicine to function. Caregivers may unintentionally enable addictive behavior in a disabled person because of ignorance and sympathy for the person’s pain. 

These risk factors that the physically disabled face may also become barriers to treatment access, and also increase their chances of relapse after achieving initial sobriety. A significant barrier to treatment access is also a lack of education and knowledge of how to recognize addiction in someone with a physical disability who has been prescribed addictive medications. Knowing what to look for, and implementing preventative tactics can keep the disabled safe from drug addiction. 

What are the current rates of addiction and substance abuse among the disabled?

It is difficult to pin down the exact number of physically disabled people who are addicted to either drugs or alcohol. People with a physical disability are frequently prescribed medicines that have addictive qualities. And in most cases, they will need to use the medication at much higher rates than someone who is not physically disabled to manage their mobility issues and pain. When a person needs painkillers to function, the therapeutic level they need to find relief with these medicines will look very different than levels a non-disabled person may need. 

It can be challenging to determine where therapeutic use and drug abuse occur in the disabled. In general, when someone uses a drug in a way not intended for use, it is considered drug abuse and indicative of a substance use disorder. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Disability has found that up to 76.4 million people in the U.S. have a physical disability.

An estimated 4.7 million of those individuals have a co-occurring substance use disorder and a disability. The most commonly abused drugs among the physically disabled are alcohol, Oxycontin, Vicodin, marijuana, and heroin. 

What treatment options do the physically disabled need for addiction?

A significant barrier to treatment that the physically disabled face has to do with their lack of mobility. Getting to a doctor, and entering a treatment program that is designed for their needs can be difficult. A significant percentage of substance use treatment programs are not intended for the needs of the physically disabled. The American Association on Health and Disability conducted a study on the disabled and substance abuse treatment. What the research uncovered was that nearly half of all medical professionals who were approached by a disabled patient for addiction were unable to provide care for the patient due to physical barriers. 

Finding a treatment program that meets a patient’s specific needs can be a challenge for any patient, but the difficulties are, unfortunately, more pronounced for the disabled. Physically disabled patients who are struggling with substance use disorder will need access to resources that can help put them in touch with treatment programs that can meet their needs. The National Association on Alcohol, Drugs, and Disability Inc. (NAADD) offers information on substance abuse and can connect disabled patients with addiction treatment services. Local treatment centers may also provide some assistance for putting physically disabled persons in touch with a facility that can meet their specific needs. 

If you or a loved one are struggling with substance abuse, there is hope. Please contact the addiction specialists at Windward Way today to learn more about customized, addiction treatment plans for achieving and maintaining sobriety.