Study: Online Communities Can Provide Lifeline for Patients in Remission from Opioid Use Disorder

Online communities can help opioid users in remission maintain long-lasting sobriety, however the research suggests these communities should be non-drug-related.

Internet forums can provide social benefits and wellbeing for patients who are in remission from an opioid use disorder, according to research from the University of Exeter. However, focusing on therapy and support forums can increase the risk of relapse compared to generalist, non-drug-related groups, according to the study.

Stigma, lack of funding, or personal circumstances can limit an opioid user’s access to therapy and recovery support groups, according to lead researcher Miriam Koschate-Reis, associate professor of Computational Social Psychology, in the Faculty of Health and Life Sciences. But online forums and discussion platforms, such as Reddit, can provide a lifeline.

“Opioid addiction is one of the most pressing public health issues of the day,” Koschate-Reis said in a press release. “Whether it is addiction to prescription drugs such as painkillers, illicitly manufactured synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, or opiates including heroine, the human cost is profound.”

Reddit—a popular news and discussion site—formed the base of the researchers’ work. The team examined 31,000 members on the OpiatesRecovery subreddit forum, in which members published recovery information, such as remission status or days since last opioid use, and provided peer support.

The investigative team sampled 457 members from OpiatesRecovery. Among participants, 48% used an opiate or opioid while in remission, which they wrote about in the forum, whereas the other 52% did not relapse.

The researchers then looked at participant activity on other subreddit discussion threads, identifying more than 1200 different subreddits. The research team categorized the chains into those related to substance use, devoted to recovery support, or unrelated to either.

Between 2019 and 2019, researchers observed that the “greater the number of online non–drug-related groups an individual recovering from opioid use disorder became a part of, the lower the risk of a use episode over time,” said Elahe Naserianhanzaei, co-researcher in the faculty of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences, in the press release.

Naserianhanzaei said that each new non-drug-related forum that a participant joined could decrease the risk of relapsed drug use during remission by 5%.

“And this effect persisted when membership in recovery and substance use groups was also accounted for. This is in line with the view that social groups deliver health benefits and create resilience,” Naserianhanzaei said in the press release.

Researchers observed a correlation between opioid use during remission and marginal engagement with non-drug-related subreddits. They also found a correlation between increased amount of posting on these recovery forums, which they believe could be examined further. However, participants who engaged with substance use forums had no increased risk of opioid use.

Generally, the research “provides the first indication that a person’s remission journey needs to continue beyond the phase where they build recovery support group memberships and move towards group participation that is non-drug related. And these results indicate that online communities can help people to make that transition,” Koschate-Reis concluded in the press release.

Reference

University of Exeter. Research reveals potentially life-changing impact of internet forums on those in remission from opioid use disorder. EurekAlert! September 6, 2022. Accessed September 6, 2022. https://www.eurekalert.org/news-releases/963817