Most Americans have heard the term “opioid” thanks to the widespread and well-known addiction crisis that has contributed to 68% of the more than 700,000 fatal overdoses since 1999. Yet for many, opioid addiction hits close to home as loved ones struggle with addiction, often stemming from prescription pain medication. While doctors are now re-evaluating their reliance on prescription opioid medicines, millions of Americans continue to battle opioid addiction and related health complications. Here, we take a look at the reality of opioid addiction, including the signs and symptoms of opioid addiction and effective methods of managing and treating addictive behaviors we use at Solution Based Treatment & Detox.
What is the Difference Between Opioids and Opiates?
For years, doctors relied on opiates, or chemicals derived from the opium poppy, to generate pain-relieving medications for use in hospitals and battlefields. These drugs include codeine and morphine, both of which were based on chemicals found inside the plant and frequently used to manage moderate to severe pain.
With advancements in medicine, man-made versions of opiates became popular as they were easier to manufacture, often faster-acting, and more potent. These drugs were called opioids, a term that is now often used to refer to both opiate (naturally-derived) and opioid (synthetic) drugs.
Common drugs in the opioid/opiate family include:
- OxyContin, Xtampza, Oxaydo (oxycodone)
- Hysingla, Vicodin, Zohydro (hydrocodone)
- Opana (oxymorphone)
Opioids Effects On the Brain
Though they are derived from different sources, both opioids and opiates affect the brain and body in similar ways. When they enter the bloodstream, they bind to opioid receptors in the brain. These receptors control vital body functions including mood regulation, breathing, hunger, and the sensation of pain.
Opioids which bind to brain receptors cause the brain to feel less pain, but can also cause a temporary sense of pleasure, lowered breathing and heart rate, and slower digestion, among other effects. Because these drugs directly interact with critical receptors in the brain, they can become highly addictive as the body becomes accustomed to their presence and requires higher and higher dosages to feel the same effect. This is known as tolerance, and it’s a common factor among most addictive substances and drives the cycle of addiction and substance use.
For purposes of this article, we’ll refer to both opioids and opiates as “opioids” in order to avoid confusion.
What Are the Signs of Opioid Addiction?
Because opioid drugs are severely addictive, it’s critical to know the warning signs and symptoms of opioid addiction if you have any loved ones currently using these drugs, either for medical or recreational purposes.
While opioid addiction often begins with the use of prescription medications, such addiction can transform into the use of “street” drugs like heroin. While ongoing research is needed to determine the likelihood that a person taking prescription opioids will turn to heroin, doctors do know that taking prescription opioids is a “risk factor for heroin use.” And, since both heroin and prescription opioids affect the same part of the brain, there are significant and shared health risks for using both substances.
If you’re concerned that a loved one is abusing opioids, it’s important to watch for a series of signs and behaviors that can signal addiction. These can typically be broken down into two categories: behavioral symptoms and physical symptoms.
Behavioral symptoms occur when a person’s behavior changes unusually or rapidly thanks to addiction. These can include:
- Lethargy and exhaustion
- Depression and anxiety
- Wide change in appetite (eating a lot more or less than usual)
- Sudden mood changes and irritability
- Lack of interest in friends and hobbies
- Skipping work or school
- Lack of personal hygiene
- “Doctor shopping” when prescriptions expire
- Hoarding of prescription medications, even when expired
- Faking prescriptions or frequently asking for refills
Physical symptoms take place inside the person’s body and may be more difficult to detect unless your loved one is experiencing a medical emergency. These symptoms can include:
- Digestive issues (including nausea or constipation)
- Drowsiness or confusion
- Lack of balance, coordination, or fine motor skills
- Lowered breathing or heart rate
- Complications from related medical conditions
Even if you’re not able to spot the immediate physical signs of addiction, it’s important to remember that, because they are highly addictive, opioid drugs are frequently linked to overdoses.
Signs and Symptoms of Opioid Overdose
Knowing the signs of an opioid overdose can help you act quickly in the event of an emergency. If you suspect a loved one is experiencing an overdose, call 911 immediately since opioid overdoses can be fatal. Such an overdose can often trigger a sharp drop in breathing and heart rate, which, at its most severe, can limit oxygen to the brain, possibly leading to coma or death.
Signs of an opioid overdose include:
- Small pupils
- Shallow breathing
- Weak heartbeat
- Lack of consciousness
- Pale skin
- Nausea or vomiting
- Lack of energy or ability to move
Getting medical help as soon as possible during an overdose is critical, as many medical professionals now carry naloxone, a fast-acting drug that counteracts the effects of an opioid overdose if administered in time.
What is Opioid Withdrawal and How Dangerous is it?
When the body becomes accustomed to the presence of opioid drugs in the bloodstream and brain, it becomes increasingly difficult to quit the drugs “cold turkey” without triggering significant and dangerous withdrawal symptoms.
As a result, if your loved one is seeking to reduce or eliminate their opioid use, they should always undergo the withdrawal process under the supervision of a medical professional with experience in addiction treatment.
Withdrawal symptoms from opioids can range from mild and uncomfortable to severe and potentially life-threatening. These symptoms can include:
- Feeling of moodiness, anxiety, or irritability
- A sense of restlessness, agitation, or confusion
- Inability to sleep (insomnia) or related sleep challenges
- Flu-like symptoms (sweating, chills, runny nose)
- Intestinal difficulties (vomiting, nausea, cramps, diarrhea)
Though some of these symptoms may seem mild, they can become life-threatening without proper care. Loss of fluids and dehydration is common when vomiting or experiencing diarrhea, and a lack of energy or inability to sleep may make it difficult to seek help or properly hydrate. That’s why it’s critical that withdrawal is always overseen and managed by a medical team.
While withdrawal can be uncomfortable, it’s a necessary part of the recovery process. Only when a client is free of addictive substances can they truly begin a healthy and sustainable recovery and focus on understanding and managing addiction. Nonetheless, trying to manage withdrawal symptoms alone or outside of the care of a medical professional can result in health risks, so it’s always best to seek out professional care when beginning the detox process.
Treatment for Opioid Addiction
Whether your loved one has undergone treatment before or is starting the process for the first time, addiction treatment always begins with a period of detoxification (or detox). This medically-supervised period allows the client to fully flush drugs and addictive substances from their system in a safe and controlled environment where their medical condition is actively monitored and assessed. During this period of time, the client receives support to manage their withdrawal symptoms and prepare for treatment.
After completing detox, clients typically enroll in a residential treatment program, where they are able to temporarily disconnect from the outside world in order to focus on their health, well-being, and recovery from addiction. Most treatment programs offer some form of 12-step-based treatment, in which clients undergo a series of guided steps that move them towards a better understanding of their own experience with addiction. At the same time, clients may also experience individual and group therapy to analyze and understand what triggered their substance use. Some clients may also qualify for medication-assisted treatment to help them better manage ongoing cravings throughout the recovery process.
Depending on the severity of their addiction, some clients may go straight from detox to outpatient programs, in which they are able to attend treatment while living off-campus (often in sober housing) and maintaining a work and family life. This is especially common for clients who have attended addiction treatment programs before. For clients who complete a residential treatment program, a follow-up outpatient program will help ensure they maintain their recovery while reintegrating with their daily lives.
Upon completion of the outpatient program, clients are encouraged to continue their recovery with group support, either through an aftercare program, frequent alumni meetings, enrollment in a local 12-step organization such as Narcotics Anonymous (NA), or a combination of all three. Having proper support from friends, family, and community can make a huge difference in sustaining a lasting recovery or struggling with relapse.
Opioid Addiction Facts and Statistics
- Approximately 12 percent of people who use prescription opioid drugs will develop an addiction.
- More than 100 people die each day from opioid overdoses in the United States.
- Two out of every three drug-related overdoses in the United States include the use of an opioid-based drug.
If you or a loved one are seeking treatment for opioid addiction Solution Based Treatment & Detox can help. Contact our team of addiction treatment professionals today for a plan to get started on your recovery.
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