Opioids are a class of drugs that interacts with the brain’s opioid receptors. When people take them, they decrease sensations of pain and increase feelings of euphoria. Legal opioids, in the form of prescription pain relievers such as oxycodone and morphine, can be used to treat severe and chronic pain.
However, opioids are highly addictive — and not just because of the feeling of euphoria, or “high,” that they cause. Taking an opioid releases an enormous amount of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a chemical that makes people feel rewarded and is the most important chemical in the brain for reinforcing behavior.
Thus, whether someone is taking a legally prescribed opiate or an illegal one such as heroin, opioid dependence is likely to occur.
There is currently an opioid epidemic in the United States. When people use this term, they are referring to the high rate of overdose deaths in the country due to opioid abuse. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are 192 drug overdose deaths every day.
This number is high, but the rate of opioid overdose deaths seems to be increasing every year by an average of 10%. The vast majority of these are caused by synthetic opioids — mainly prescription drugs.
While “street drugs” such as heroin, which can be injected, snorted, sniffed, or smoked, are widely known to be addictive, many people falsely consider all prescription drugs to be safe. Many users are surprised when they become addicted to a prescription opioid.
As the body builds a tolerance, addicts can be driven to use more frequently, at high quantities, or to seek out more potent substances. Those who make major changes in their lives in order to have access to drugs are exhibiting one of the tell-tale signs of drug abuse.
Other side effects of opioid addiction, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, include:
Beyond these immediate physical and psychological effects, often the clearest sign of opioid addiction is a change in behavior. People who are addicted to opioids will often entirely restructure their lives to guarantee access to their drug of choice. Serious addicts face problems with money, employment, friends, family, and health.
Withdrawal occurs when the body reacts to not having a substance that it has become accustomed to. In the case of opioid withdrawal, addicts can face a very intense and protracted battle.
Early opioid withdrawal symptoms include:
Later symptoms, which can be more intense, begin after the first day or so. They include:
It is highly recommended that anyone quitting opioids enroll in an addiction treatment center so that they can detox under medical supervision. Medically-Assisted Treatment (MAT) is available at many detox centers and can be a profoundly helpful method for achieving long term sobriety.
MAT involves combining medications that aid with the withdrawal process with behavioral therapy and counseling. This comprehensive addiction treatment has been demonstrated to improve recovery outcomes.
One medication often used to treat the effects of opioid withdrawal is suboxone. Suboxone is a combination of two different substances, buprenorphine and naloxone. Together, they mitigate the intensity of opioid withdrawal. Substance abuse becomes very difficult on suboxone, the medication blocks the effects of opioids in the brain.
Using suboxone along with behavioral therapy as part of a MAT program can be hugely beneficial for recovering addicts. Medical advice states that suboxone can be prescribed for years as long as the recovering addict is also pursuing behavioral therapy.
This is because suboxone and other medications, by reducing the immediate suffering often associated with quitting opioids, can make recovering addicts more receptive to the tools they need for fighting addiction.
Misconceptions about medications like suboxone spread the myth that using suboxone is merely substituting one drug for another. In fact, suboxone does not get people high. It simply reduces the withdrawal symptoms of quitting opioids and allows recovering addicts’ brains to heal.
If you are interest in pursuing MAT as part of a recovery plan for either yourself or a loved one, it is a good idea to get in touch with a residential treatment program. The best approach is usually to begin in detox.
Afterwards, taking some addition time to learn skills and focus on sobriety by living in a rehab or a sober living home can also be beneficial. Recovering from an opioid addiction may be a long and difficult process, but by methodically taking one step at a time, long term sobriety can be achieved.