What Is Opioid Addiction?

Addiction Treatment

Many people ask the question, “what is opioid addiction?”. According to the National Institutes of Health, addiction to opioids is a long-lasting and chronic disease that can result major health, social, and financial problems for those afflicted.

Derived from the opium poppy plant, opioids are a class of powerful drugs that act in the nervous system to produce feelings of pain relief and euphoria. Some opioids are legally prescribed by healthcare providers to manage severe and chronic pain and some commonly prescribed opioids include oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, buprenorphine, oxymorphone, and morphine. Street opioids, such as opium and heroin, are illegal drugs.

Opioid addiction is characterized by a compulsive and powerful urge to use these drugs even when they are no longer required for the reason that they were originally prescribed. Unfortunately, there is a high potential for opioids to cause addiction in some people, even when the prescribed medications are taken as directed. Many prescription opioids are misused or diverted to others and individuals who become addicted may prioritize getting and using these drugs over other activities in their lives, often negatively impacting their professional and personal relationships. It is still unclear to science why some people are more likely to become addicted than others, but genetic and lifestyle circumstances may play a role.

One of the problems with opioids is that they can change the chemistry of the human brain in ways that can lead to drug tolerance. This means that over time the dose needs to be increased to achieve the same effect. Taking opioids over a long period of time produces dependence, such that when people stop taking the drug, they have psychological and physical manifestations of withdrawal (such as diarrhea, muscle cramping, and anxiety).

Opioid dependence is not the same thing as addiction. While almost everyone who takes opioids for an extended period will become dependent, only a small percentage of those people will experience the compulsive and continuing need for opioids that manifests as addiction.

Addiction to opioids can cause life-threatening health problems, including the risk of overdose. Overdose occurs when high doses of opioids cause breathing to slow or stop, leading to unconsciousness and death if the overdose is not treated immediately. Opioids in all forms, legal and illegal, present a risk of overdose if a person takes too much of the drug, or if opioids are combined with other drugs (particularly tranquilizers called benzodiazepines).

Addiction is a condition in which something that started as pleasurable now feels like something a person can’t live without. Doctors define drug addiction as an irresistible craving for a drug, out-of-control and compulsive use of the drug, and continued use of the drug despite repeated, harmful consequences.

Opioids are highly addictive, in large part because they activate powerful reward centers in your brain through the release of endorphins, which are the brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters. Endorphins mute feelings of pain, which is why they are so important in pain management, and increase of pleasure, creating a temporary but powerful sense of well-being. When an opioid dose wears off, patients often find themselves wanting those positive feelings to return, which is a potential first step in the slippery slope towards addiction.

The problem is that the positive effects that one first experiences when taking opioid drugs wears off over time. As opioid use continues, the human body decreases its production of endorphins and the same dose of opioids stops triggering a strong sense of relief and well-being. This is what is known as drug tolerance and a major reason that opioid addiction is so common in the U.S. today is that people who develop tolerance tend to increase their opioid use so they can keep feeling good.

Since physicians today are highly aware of opioid risks, it’s often difficult to get a doctor to increase a patient’s dose, or even renew a prescription for opioids. This causes some patient to seek opioids through illegal methods. Sometimes this means that patients will turn to heroin, which can be laced with the powerful drug fentanyl or other powerful and dangerous contaminants. Because of the potency of fentanyl, this combination has been associated with a significant number of deaths in those using heroin.

Opioids are most addictive when you take them using methods other than those prescribed by a doctor, such as crushing a pill so that it can be snorted or injected. This extremely dangerous practice is even more threatening if the pill is in a long acting formulation, since quickly delivering all the medicine to your body can cause an accidental overdose.

The length of time you use prescribed opioids also plays a role. Researchers have found that taking opioid medications for more than a few days increases your risk of long-term use, which increases your risk of addiction.

Additionally, women have a unique set of risk factors for opioid addiction. Research shows that women are more likely than men to have chronic pain and, compared with men, women are also more likely to be prescribed opioid medications, to be given higher doses and to use opioids for longer periods of time. Women may also have biological tendencies to become dependent on prescription pain relievers more quickly than are men.

The physicians and clinicians at New Life Medical Addiction Services are highly trained in the proper use of opioids and in the therapies that are most effective at detoxifying and weaning people off these drugs if they become addicted.

If you still have questions about what opioid addiction or if you or someone you know suffers from opioid abuse or addiction, Call us at: 856-942-3700 or send us a Text Message for a confidential consultation today.

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