Addiction to Opiates – Opiates are alkaloid compounds that occur naturally in the opium poppy (Papaver somniferum.) For medicinal purposes, three psychoactive chemicals are isolated – morphine, codeine, and thebaine.
Due to their analgesic (pain relieving) properties and interactions on the brain’s reward system, opiates have a high potential for abuse and addiction. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), more than two million people in the U.S. and between 26.4-36 million globally abuse opioids.
For this reason, the Drug Enforcement Agency has placed them on the list of controlled substances as Schedule II drugs, meaning that despite dangers associated with their use they do serve a legitimate medical purpose.
Opioids are partially or wholly synthetic, human-made versions of opiates. They include illicit street drugs such as heroin, as well as prescription painkillers such as oxycodone and hydrocodone. Opiates and opioids, as technically defined, are different in that they are natural versus synthetic. However, the two are often referred to interchangeably because they bind to the same brain receptors and result in strikingly similar effects.
Prescription opioids, such as Valium, are indicated for the treatment of acute moderate-severe pain, such as following an injury or surgery. These drugs have often been used to treat chronic pain, despite the threat of addiction that tends to develop with long-term use.
Addiction to Opioids: How They Work
Opioids are chemicals that provide pain relief by connecting to corresponding receptors in the brains of living beings. Once attached, these cells transmit signals that mitigate feelings of pain and increase feelings of general well-being.
Moreover, opioids modify one’s perception of pain more than they truly numb or block it,. Over time, however, this effect can result in a condition known as hyperalgesia, which is characterized by increased sensitivity to pain.
In addition to desirable effects, opiates and opioids can also result in adverse side effects, such as constipation, drowsiness, and nausea and vomiting. Long-term use also greatly increases the risk of dependency, tolerance, and abuse.
Addiction to Opiates: Why They are so Dangerous
When used long-term opioids can become addictive. Addiction is fueled by dependence (withdrawal symptoms that manifest upon cessation) and tolerance (increasing amounts of the drugs are needed to produce the same effect.)
The former (dependence) decreases one’s desire to quit or cut back, due primarily to cravings and unpleasant side effects upon suspension of use. Withdrawal symptoms may include the following:
- Low energy
- Irritability and agitation
- Runny nose, Teary eyes
- Hot and cold sweats,
- Goosebumps and chills
- Muscle aches and pains
- Abdominal cramping
- Nausea and Vomiting
- General malaise
The latter (tolerance) compels users to take higher doses, which has the potential to result in life-threatening central nervous system (CNS) depression, a condition characterized by a slowed or impaired respiratory rate and heartbeat.
Also, when used in conjunction with alcohol, benzodiazepines, or other CNS depressants, the sedative effect of opioids is exponentially greater than when used alone. The impact of the other substances is also intensified, as well – meaning the risk of overdose and death is significantly higher.
Finally, the overuse of opioids, especially when combined with alcohol or other drugs, raises the risk of overdose or injury to oneself and others when operating a vehicle or equipment.
Addiction to Opiates: Symptoms of an Opioid Overdose
- Vomiting, dry heaving, and gurgling noises
- Delirium and confusion
- Limpness, weakness, impaired or incapacitated motor functions
- Cyanosis – purple or bluish skin, fingernails and lips
- Labored or profoundly slow breathing
- Unconsciousness and unresponsiveness
- Respiratory arrest
An opioid overdose is a medical emergency and requires an immediate dose of naloxone. If you or someone you know is experiencing the above symptoms related to opioid use, please call 911 immediately.
Treatment for Addiction to Opiates
Opiate addiction is a serious and life-threatening condition that is best treated by a long-term substance abuse recovery program. Before intensive treatment begins, patients should undergo a medical detox, a process in which the person is supervised around-the-clock by medical staff and monitored/medicated for severe symptoms of withdrawal.
After detox, persons are urged to participate in residential (inpatient) rehab for at least 30 days. During this treatment program, patients receive medical care, therapy, and counseling while meeting with physicians, addiction specialists and peer support groups.
After discharge from rehab, many opt for intensive outpatient treatment, which offers many of the same supportive recovery services as inpatient treatment but offers the person more flexibility to attend to critical responsibilities such as work and school while they transition back to the outside world.
Toward the end of treatment, we provide aftercare planning services to patients to help them locate medical and mental health resources outside of the center. We also host alumni activities which foster ongoing peer interaction and support.
Through participation in a comprehensive, long-term evidence-based treatment program, you can learn the skills you need to maintain sobriety and ultimately regain the happy, fulfilling life you deserve.