The CDC recently estimated that there are over 1,000 visits daily to the emergency room and 91 deaths related to opioid overdose. To put those numbers perspective, consider this: more people die from overdoses than influenza and pneumonia each year. There are certainly people battling chronic illnesses and other health conditions who need access to opioids. But opioid addiction is a chronic disease in itself. It’s time we face the increased risk surrounding those medications. 

Addiction as a disease

Drugs come with a powerful stigma. Although treated seriously by many healthcare professionals, many people fail to understand that addiction isn’t a personal flaw or weakness. Complex factors interact that prompt this disease to come with serious – and oftentimes fatal – consequences. This is what is at the heart of the opioid epidemic.

Opioid Addiction Chronic Disease man struggling with addiction

The American Psychiatric Association acknowledged it as “severe as a substance use disorder” with both physical and psychological symptoms. Opioids frequently lead to addiction due to their powerful effects and the false perception by drug manufacturers that they are safe.

What are the symptoms of substance use disorder?

The DSM-V outlines a pattern of problematic substance use patterns into 11 diagnostic criteria. The severity of the addiction is measured over the course of 12 months:

  • mild disorder: those who fit 2-3 criteria 
  • moderate disorder: those who fit 4-5 criteria 
  • severe disorder: those who fit more than 6 criteria 

The categories are intended to cover most aspects of drug misuse. This includes taking more than the prescribed amount, experiencing cravings and missing social opportunities or work. 

Opioid addiction is a societal problem

One of the primary causes of the opioid epidemic may be that many simply don’t realize how powerful opioids are. Many still believe that only illegal drugs lead to problems. They may also believe that if a medication comes from a doctor that it’s safe. On the contrary, prescription opioids can indeed be dangerous and are highly addictive. 

Opioid Addiction Chronic DiseaseAnother major component of the opioid crisis is that limits on “opioid prescriptions for the purpose of saving lives would cause people to turn to heroin or fentanyl.” According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse’s national-level general population heroin data, “nearly 80% of heroin users reported using prescription opioids prior to heroin.” It’s clear that opioid addiction can easily lead to a vicious downward spiral – one that greatly impacts our communities. 

Why is opioid addiction so serious?

Doctors have known for hundreds of years that opioids are very dangerous. During and after the Civil War, many people became addicted to morphine. So pharmacists created heroin, which was intended to be a safe alternative to morphine to prevent overdose deaths.

Naturally, it wasn’t long before the incredible dangers of heroin manifested themselves. Drugs such as Oxycontin and Percocet were marketed as modern alternatives and as chronic pain relievers with a lower risk of addiction. That has been proven false.

Any drug in this family changes the chemistry of people’s brains. Within a short amount of time, people can develop a tolerance. This means that they have to take more of the drug to achieve the same effect. Over time, a dependence develops.

When that happens, physical and psychological symptoms of withdrawal occur. These symptoms can include:

  • anxiety
  • trouble sleeping
  • inability to focus
  • uncontrollable drowsiness
  • flu-like symptoms
  • nausea

After long term use, those struggling with addiction can find themselves with a compulsive, ongoing craving to continue taking the drug. 

How does opioid addiction compare to other chronic diseases?

Opioid addiction – and drug addiction in general – are chronic diseases. For a variety of reasons, people may relapse and start using again, making the struggle feel never-ending.

It’s essential to know that relapses happen and aren’t a sign of failure. The relapse rate for drug use is similar to other chronic diseases. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, relapse rate measures similarly to asthma and hypertension, at between 40-60% of patients.

Treatment of these chronic diseases necessitates not just overcoming dependence but also changing behaviors, lifestyle and more. Relapses are common. But if individuals use relapses as learning moments, they can seek out treatment methods that will help them secure lifelong sobriety.

How to treat opioid addiction

Treating opioid addiction is complex. In many cases of addiction, people cannot simply quit cold turkey. Doing so will cause serious withdrawal side effects that may be life-threatening.

Opioid Addiction Chronic Disease woman doctor talking to woman patient about addiction treatmentNowadays, health care professionals and addiction specialists generally prescribe a combined course of medication-assisted treatment and counseling. For some people, a stay in a sober living facility may be the best option for the initial detox period. If you or someone you know is suffering from addiction, reach out to a health care provider who can review your options. 

The bottom line: opioid addiction is a chronic disease

Opioid addiction has reached epidemic proportions. Approximately one in three Americans know somebody addicted to opioids. It’s now more important than ever to understand addiction for what it is: a chronic disease.

By treating it as we would other medical conditions, more people can get back on the road to sobriety.  

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This post has been updated in May 2019 with new information and resources. 

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