Talk about the opioid epidemic in America has been all over the news recently. It is an issue of vital concern affecting Americans today, and with so much information available, it can be challenging to know what is good and what is bad information. What is opioid addiction? In this guide, we will discuss how this addiction is a disease that leads to lifelong struggle when not properly treated.
Opioid addiction 101
Opioid addiction is not just a public and mental health issue in the United States. It is a worldwide problem that takes over the lives of those struggling with opioid dependence. What starts as a one-time trial can quickly become an everyday occurrence. While opioids can be effective for treating pain, they can also destroy lives when they are abused.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 70,237 people have died from an opioid overdose in the year 2017. Those numbers are set to rise in the years to come. Those who are addicted to opioids may begin their addiction with prescriptions from a doctor who is overprescribing.
What are opioids?
Opioids are a class of drugs that include prescription pain medications such as:
Prescription opioids are considered legal medications when the person prescribed the painkillers takes them exactly as directed by medical professionals. However, heroin is an example of an illegal form of an opioid.
How do opioids work?
Simply put, opioids are chemically related to and interact with opioid receptors on nerve cells in the brain and body. Because of the way these drugs interact with the nerve cells, they can both relieve pain and produce euphoric feelings.
Opioids are recognized as generally safe by doctors for short-term use. However, since opioids may produce euphoric feelings, they can become habit-forming. When someone becomes dependent upon opioid pain relievers, there is a higher likelihood of developing opioid addiction. In the case of opioid abuse, powerful painkillers can cause an overdose, which could lead to death.
What is opioid addiction?
So what is opioid addiction? Opioid addiction is the dependence upon legal or illegal opioid drugs. When a person becomes addicted, it is very difficult for that person to control or stop using the drugs, despite the harm that taking them may cause.
Typically, drug addiction causes intense cravings for the drug. Often, people who have opioid addiction or another drug or alcohol addiction find it difficult to stop using the drug, even when they want to quit. Some people may be able to stop for a while before relapsing.
If you are concerned that you might have an opioid addiction, it’s important to remember that you don’t have to quit on your own. It will likely be challenging, but there are resources and support available when you are ready to address your opioid addiction.
What treatments are available for opioid addiction?
The first step you have to take is recognizing that you need help. The next step is reaching out for the help and support that you need.
Talk to your primary care doctor and ask for advice. Your doctor may have recommendations for:
- support groups
- mental health professionals
- addiction support groups
- hotlines and more
If you are ready to face your opioid addiction, you may need an extra layer of support such as a treatment facility. There are varying levels of care at different treatment facilities that include outpatient, residential and inpatient programs. You and your health care team can work together to decide upon which level of care is the best fit for you. During a stay in a treatment facility, you will work closely with an entire team of people who are dedicated to your success.
Treatment programs can offer:
- individual therapy sessions
- group therapy sessions
- relapse prevention
- varying levels of care
- self-help groups
The pain of addiction
When people have an opioid addiction, life is hell. The addiction takes hold and disturbs the daily life. It limits function and causes those who are struggling with dependence to fixate solely on the drug.
Chasing the Dragon: The Life of an Opiate Addict, an interagency documentary created by the FBI and the DEA, highlights the struggle of the pain of opioid addiction. Those struggling in the documentary disclose that they loathe their lifestyle and that they know the drug has ruined their life, but they can’t stop chasing the dragon because they would feel too sick.
Those who are addicted seem to have a love/hate relationship with the drug. Whether it be in a prescription pain pill format, powder or liquid, there is a physical need for the substance, yet it debilitates users and disables them from living productive and healthy lives.
Users of the drug may face painful health conditions such as:
- lung issues
- mental anguish such as depression and anxiety
- sexual dysfunction
- organ damage
- cardiac arrest
If they use syringes, they may have to face:
- collapsed veins
- clogged blood vessels
- Hepatitis B & C
- other bloodborne pathogens
When the drug is not available, users can quickly become desperate and start to have opioid withdrawal symptoms. These can include:
- rapid heart rate
- runny nose,
- depression and anxiety
- intense cravings
- body aches
Opioid addictions often lead to desperation
Desperation is a common characteristic for those struggling with drug addiction. It often drives them to do just about anything to obtain their drug of choice. This can include behavior such as:
- breaking and entering
- lying to family members and friends
- committing fraud
Opioids and physiology
Once those who use opioids begin to regularly use, their tolerance for the drug builds. This can lead to abuse if the drug is not properly used. The human body will need more in order to feel the pain relief that was once experienced.
Opioid receptors connect to nerves inside of the brain. This is similar to a key and lock effect. The euphoria that users experience in the short-term is the chemical reaction their bodies feel from the drug. Soon after, their bodies will be depleted of its natural feel-good chemicals and will rely on opiates to feel not sick.
Recovery doesn’t end with physical withdrawal. After detox, those addicted to opioids will have to continue to fight their mental addiction and other side effects. They will also need to learn how to stay away from the drug and those who still use it.
Opioid addiction is a disease
Those who struggle with opioid addiction often get so caught up in their addiction that they forget how many doses they’ve used. This is when scenarios get even scarier. Millions of people have overdosed on opioids, and that number will only continue to rise.
There are a plethora of strategies that organizations are pushing so that those struggling with addiction can heal properly:
- States and authorities treating addictions as a disease, not a crime
- States providing improved access to addiction drugs, medications, treatment and recovery centers
- Narcan being readily available to users, families and trained professionals who help treat and fight this addiction
- Loved ones accepting that addiction is a disease and supporting appropriate and affordable health care options for it
- States limiting the number of prescribed opioids being offered by doctors
Share this video with someone you know who may be struggling with addiction:
The bottom line
If you are facing chronic pain, there may be other options to help you manage that pain. Talk to your health care team about the possibility of developing a drug-free pain management plan.
If your health care team decides you need opioids to manage your pain short-term or long-term, make sure you take your medication only as prescribed. Substance abuse for pain relief is never the answer. Talk to your health care team about lifestyle changes you can make that complement your prescribed medications.
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