Reece Museum hosts discussion on opioid addiction

Brandon Paykamian • Updated May 16, 2019 at 1:53 PM

Tackling the region’s opioid addiction epidemic requires dialogue, and sometimes that means confronting the stigmas associated with addiction and methods of treatment, according to Dr. Jack Woodside, a local family medicine physician.

“Mental health disorders, in general, have carried a stigma for generations,” he said. “These disorders were once seen as possession by the devil, and these people were treated horribly.

“We know better than that now, and we know it's a disease.”

On Wednesday, Woodside and Dr. Eric Avery, an artist, physician and the spring 2019 East Tennessee State University Basler Chair of Excellence for the Integration of the Arts, Rhetoric and Science, met at ETSU’s Reece Museum to discuss medication-assisted treatment, overdose prevention methods and the ways in which opioid use disorder takes hold.

While abstinence-based treatment for opioid addiction is preferable and healthier, Woodside said many who go “cold turkey” relapse a few times before quitting. That’s because opioid use disorder can almost permanently change the chemistry of the brain. Cravings can remain after withdrawal symptoms subside.

“The science suggests that you would need to be free of opiates for as much as a year for the receptors to get back to anything resembling what they were before,” Woodside said.

Medication-assisted treatment with drugs like buprenorphine and methadone is controversial, particularly in areas like Northeast Tennessee that have high concentrations of Suboxone clinics. But Woodside said the medical science still supports the use of medication-assisted treatment.

“The things in the last four or five years that have become abundantly clear from several different studies is that being on medication-assisted treatment reduces your risk of death by (about) 50 percent,” he said. “That’s huge.”

Avery and Woodside both emphasized the need to look at the opioid addiction epidemic as a multifaceted medical problem that involves genetic predispositions to addiction, as well as psychological and sociological factors.

“Probably half of that susceptibility is genetic,” Woodside said, adding it is sometimes much like other diseases like type two diabetes. 

“It is a biopsychosocial disease. There’s biology involved, there’s inherited genetic susceptibility – if you have a parent who has substance use disorder, your odds are about tripled.

“That’s only maybe half of it. There are psychological factors, like stress and anxiety,” he said. “There are social factors. If you live in an area where many people are using drugs, it becomes a social norm.”

While drug addiction often begins with a choice to abuse a drug, it sometimes starts with a prescription. But even after an initial choice to abuse is made, Woodside said it becomes “less and less” of a “choice.”

“As we continue to use, those changes in the brain take place in the same part of the brain that generates hunger for food or thirst for water,” he said.

Avery and Woodhouse also briefly discussed the role drugs like Naloxone play in saving lives by preventing overdoses, as well as the importance of syringe exchange programs established to prevent infectious diseases like HIV and hepatitis often spread through intravenous drug use.

Last year, East Tennessee State University opened one of four in the state after the region was identified as a high-risk area.

“It’s not just harm reduction for the individuals with the disease because, particularly with hepatitis and HIV, there’s the sexual transmission,” Woodside said of syringe exchange programs.

Wednesday’s discussion was the first of two talks held at Reece during the “Epidemic” visual art exhibition.

The exhibition, open until May 31, features prints, 3D art and projections by Avery and fellow printmaker and graphic designer Adam DelMarcelle of Pennsylvania, who lost his brother to an opioid overdose in 2014.

“I had no idea it was going to be this impactful,” Woodside said of the exhibit.

Avery, whose art often also focuses on infectious diseases, said art can help generate more dialogue about public health crises like the opioid epidemic.

“Art can save lives,” Avery said.

On Friday at noon, Avery and Dr. Shawn Hollinger, a neonatologist at Niswonger Children’s Hospital and assistant professor in Quillen College of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics, will discuss the dangers of neonatal abstinence syndrome, which occurs when a child is born dependent on medicines or substances the mother used during pregnancy.

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