Opioid addiction has been discussed as one of the biggest public health concerns in the United States, taking more lives that gun violence or traffic accidents. Ending the nation’s opioid crisis involves understanding what opioids are, how the epidemic was caused, and how the addiction can be treated is imperative.
What Are Opioids?
It is likely that you have heard about the opioid epidemic on the news and in discussions, but do you understand what an opioid actually is? Opioids, outside of addiction, are not bad things and in fact, our bodies have a natural opioid system. Receptors throughout the brain are responsible for regulating pain by producing natural opioids. Molecules in either natural or synthetic opioids bind to our body’s opioid receptors and block pain signals from our central nervous system. Another result from this is that our brain’s reward and pleasure centers are also stimulated by the opioids, leading to possible addiction.
Opioid vs Opiate
Although often used interchangeably, opioids and opiates are not the same. The difference is that opioid is used as a broad term to describe either a natural or man-made substance that binds to opioid receptors. Some common opioid examples are codeine, morphine, heroin, fentanyl, methadone, hydrocodone (Vicodin) and oxycodone (Oxycontin).
An opiate is a natural substance that is extracted from the flowering opium poppy plant. All opiates are opioids, but not all opioids are opiates. Some examples are heroin, morphine, and codeine. Opiates can also be highly addictive and abused.
Types of Opioid Substances
Opiods come in the form of illicit drugs and legal prescriptions. Either one can be misused and become highly addictive. Two common examples of illicit opiods are:
- Heroin. A semi-synthetic drug made from morphine, heroin is a Schedule I drug.
- Opium. A Schedule II drug, is more difficult to obtain and has no accepted medical use.
Legal opioids are referred to as prescription opioids and include morphine, fentanyl, oxycodone, and codeine. They are used medically to treat pain, but if they are used outside of the prescribed usage, they are considered to be illegal. This can include:
- Taking a prescription opiate not prescribed to you
- Taking more of the drug than prescribed
- Taking it more frequently than prescribed to do so
- Taking it in a different form than was prescribed
Synthetic drugs that are manufactured based on the chemistry of natural opioids are intentionally designed to be stronger than the morphine derived from the poppy plant and is effective in blocking cancer and surgery pain. With the increase in pain relief comes the increased feeling of pleasure that comes with it.
Common Forms of Opioids
Prescription opioids are commonly prescribed to patients with Crohn’s Disease, cancer and for patients post operation. The most common brands are:
Morphine. Prescribed to treat moderate to severe pain, morphine is typically used as a fast acting pain reliever.
Fentanyl. Fentanyl is used to treat chronic pain when other pain medications are not eliminating the pain.
Oxycodone. Used as an around-the-clock pain reliever, oxycodone is used for moderate to severe pain.
Codeine. Prescribed to treat mild to severe pain, codeine has several side effects and should be used with caution.
Opioids are also referred to as narcotics. Opioid prescription pain medications activate the brain in the same way that heroin does. If you are using increased dosages of an opioid prescription, but your daily functioning is declining rather than improving, that is a sign that you may be forming a dependence on the drug.
Opioids are designed to subside pain for a few days up to a week. Only in very rare cases are opioids necessary to manage pain past a week. If you are struggling to resist the urge to consume more opioids than have been prescribed or you find that you must take higher doses, you may be developing an addiction to opioids.
What Are The Effects of Opioids
Prescription opioids are useful for pain management, but they have a dark and dangerous side. Opioids are among the most abused drugs in the United States. They are fairly easy to get, commonly prescribed and very addictive.
Short Term Effects
Opioids are very effective at controlling pain and they are relatively inexpensive. Prescription opioids relieve pain and provide a feeling of relaxation, but they may also have negative effects. The following are negative side effects from prescription opioids:
- Respiratory depression
Breathing distress caused by opioids can lead to hypoxia, which can cause short and long term psychological and neurological effects. Misuse of prescription opioids also lead to physical dependence and possibly addiction.
Long Term Effects
Patients who use prescription opioids for an extended period of time are at risk for developing a altered state where they become dependent on the drug. Addiction is a long-term side effect of opioid use. Many people who become addicted to opioids do not realize it, as it can happen fairly quickly. Opioid addiction is defined as a compulsive urge to use opioids even when they are not prescribed or medically required.
The most concerning health issue pertaining to opioid use is overdose. In the United States, more than 130 people die daily from overdosing on opioids.
What Makes Opioids Different From Other Abused Drugs
Unlike other drug epidemics of the past, the opioid epidemic is different because of the availability and addictiveness of opioids.
History of Opioids
Heroin has been illegally distributed in America for generations, but the prescription painkiller uptick in the 1990s poured gas on the issue and led to the opioid issue that we are experiencing today. Pharmaceutical companies aggressively marketed their products to patients and doctors in the 1990s without being forthcoming about the adverse side effects addictive nature.
Patients were advised that chronic and severe pain could be safely be treated with pills. Doctors were incentivized by pharmaceutical companies to write prescriptions for opioids, even when unnecessary.
OxyContin was introduced in 1996 and within the first year, $45 million worth of pills had been prescribed and sold. By 2001, sales exceeded $1 billion.
Doctors advised patients that a single dose would maintain their chronic or intense pain for 12 hours. Drugs like OxyContin did not manage pain for a full 12 hours and the narcotic made patients feel euphoric and tranquil. When the prescription ran out, patients borrowed more from family and friends or found unethical doctors who would haphazardly prescribe more.
Dangers of Combining Opioids With Other Substances
Mixing any combination of drugs can be dangerous and present a high risk of overdose. The majority of fatal overdoses occur as a result of using multiple drugs at one time. Prescription opioids are commonly abused in combination with other psychoactive substances such as alcohol, cocaine, and benzodiazepines. Because opioids have no standard dosing and are readily prescribed, they are difficult to manage. Using opioids in combination with alcohol, xanax, antihistamines, or sleep aids can increase health risks because they can compound the effects of drowsiness and respiratory depression.
How Are Opioids Addictive?
Once a patient becomes addicted to the euphoric feeling that opioids provide, they will try to get more, even if they are not prescribed. Once they exhaust all available ways to obtain the drug, they may resort to using heroin, an illicit opioid. The biological effects of prescription painkillers is almost identical to that of heroin.
When heroin is consumed, it is converted to morphine once it reaches the brain. Molecules attach themselves to the opioid receptors in the brain. Using heroin causes a strong sense of gratification while blocking the brain from receiving pain signals from the central nervous system. The two sensations begin to become conflated and addiction continues to spiral out of control.
If you or a loved one is at risk for an opioid addiction, don’t be afraid to reach out for help. Contact us today by calling. Our compassionate team of counselors are standing by to speak with you.