WHAT IS OPIOID ADDICTION?
Fewer drugs have cast a longer shadow over society than opioids. Used to treat pain for millennia, when used correctly this large family of drugs help people endure surgery, recover from injury, and live normal lives free from chronic pain.
In 2021, a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found 100,000 drug overdose deaths had occurred over a 12-month period, a record number. Over three-fourths of those deaths were due to opioids.
Highly addictive and lethal, opioids are among the most dangerous addictive substances on the planet.
What Are Opioids?
The terms “opioid” and “opiate” both refer to drugs either made from or are chemically similar to substances found in the opium poppy plant. These drugs work by binding to certain areas on nerve cells, changing the way people perceive pain. The painkilling properties of the opium poppy have been known since ancient times. Modern research on the properties of opium started in the early 1800s, when morphine was isolated from opium.
Opioids have been continuously researched and refined since then. During the 20th century, synthetic versions of opioids were developed, increasing their effectiveness … as well as making them more addictive. In recent years, over-prescription of prescription pain medications such as OxyContin have been seen as driving the increasing rates of addiction and overdoses known as the opioid crisis.
Opioids are a large family of drugs. They include:
- Prescription pain medications including OxyContin, codeine, and Vicodin
- Illicit street narcotics such as heroin
- Fentanyl, a vastly powerful opioid painkiller often distributed in street drug markets, intentionally and otherwise
How Do Opioids Work?
Nerve cells are found throughout the human body. The cells contain structures called opioid receptors – think of them like antennas tuned to opioid drugs. When opioid drugs like fentanyl and heroin enter the body, the drugs bind to these receptors.
This causes two things to happen. Firstly, this binding changes the way we feel pain, which is why opioids are used in pain management. Secondly, they can also cause the body to release a neurotransmitter called dopamine. Dopamine is used in the body’s reward system and is released by the nervous system in small amounts.
Opioids turn this small release into a torrent, resulting in an intense, euphoric “high” which drives addictive behaviors. Over a surprisingly short amount of time, this high requires higher amounts of opioids to reach, meaning more opioid drugs must be taken to experience the same high. This is known as tolerance and is a major sign of addiction.
Over time, opioids will convince the body it needs opioids for normal functioning. When someone stops using opioids, it throws their system into shock as the body tries to rebalance itself. This is called withdrawal, and withdrawal symptoms from opioids are infamous for their intensity.
Where Do Opioids Come From?
Traditionally, heroin and other drugs derived from the opium poppy come from Asia. Opium poppies are also grown in South and Central America.
However, in recent years synthetic opioids have entered the marketplace. Able to be manufactured anywhere, synthetic opioids like fentanyl have disrupted the drug trade. Worse, they have made opioid abuse substantially more lethal.
Back to the CDC’s overdose report. Most of those overdoses were driven by synthetic opioids, specifically fentanyl. Originally intended as a powerful treatment for severe pain, illicitly manufactured fentanyl has taken over many drug markets, leaving destruction in its wake. The drug is also often use to fill out drug supplies and is also found in counterfeit pills – often resulting in unintentional overdoses.
What Makes Opioids So Dangerous?
Opioids slow down nerve signals throughout the body, including the digestive and respiratory systems. When taken in large amounts, drugs like morphine and heroin can slow down breathing to the point where the user suffocates, resulting in an overdose.
Fentanyl is exceptionally dangerous due to its potency – the drug is 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine, and miniscule amounts of fentanyl can kill.
Medications such as Narcan can help reverse an overdose. However, minutes matter and it’s critically important to act quickly.
What Does An Opioid Overdose Look Like?
According to the CDC, opioid overdoses have distinct symptoms, including:
Naloxone, known by the trade name Narcan, is a medication which can rapidly reverse opioid overdoses. In response to the overdose crisis, it’s been made available over the counter in certain jurisdictions.
Can Opioid Addiction Be Treated?
Opioid use disorders are treatable but require professional aid for long-term success. Withdrawal can be a major stumbling block to receiving treatment. When done at a professional drug rehab, withdrawal is far easier to manage; rehabs use therapies such as medication-assisted therapy (MAT) to help manage the symptoms of withdrawal and give people the best possible chance at a lasting recovery.
Rehab also changes mindsets, addressing the emotional and social issues often driving opioid abuse. Rehab is the ideal start to a healthier, happier life free from opioid abuse.
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