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Opiate and Opioid Addiction Overview

Statistics show that between 26, 4 million and 36 million people abuse opioids worldwide. In the United States, opiate an opioid addiction has become a national epidemic. These drugs are easy to get hold of, are readily prescribed, and very addictive – a dangerous combination that gave rise to this full-blown epidemic. According to recent reports, more Americans today use prescription drugs than smoke cigarettes.  Surgeon general, Dr. Vivek Murthy notes: “We now know from solid data that substance abuse disorders don’t discriminate. They affect the rich and the poor, all socioeconomic groups and ethnic groups. They affect people in urban areas and rural ones. Far more people than we realize are affected.”


What are opiates and opioids?

Opiates and opioids are a type of drugs that are regularly prescribed by doctors as a treatment for chronic and severe pain. They are alkaloid compounds found naturally in the opium poppy (lat. Papaver somniferum). The gooey sap inside the pod of mature flowers in removed, processed, and pressed into products that can be smoked, eaten, sniffed, or injected. The term opiate should be differentiated from the broader term opioid, which includes all drugs with morphine-like effects including opiates, semi-synthetic opioids derived from opiates, and synthetic opioids that are not derived from opiates. Moreover, opiates and opioids lower the number of pain signals your body send to the brain, and alter how the brain responds to pain. Opiates cover a huge variety of drugs, including:

  • Heroin.
  • Morphine.
  • Oxycodone (common brand name: OxyContin and Percocet).
  • Hydrocodone (common brand name: Vicodin and Lortab).
  • Codeine.
  • Fentanyl.


Short History of Opiates and Opioids

The psychological effects of opium were known to ancient Sumerians, Egyptians, and Greeks. In ancient China, the Chinese surgeon Hua To used opium and cannabis indica for his patients to swallow before undergoing a surgery. Then in the 17th century, the Chinese started mixing Indian opium with tobacco, and this practice was adopted throughout the region.

In 1805, the German pharmacist named Friedrich W. SertYrner isolated the principal alkaloid in opium and named it morphium after Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams. In 1832, another alkaloid in opium was discovered, codeine, and then papaverine in 1848. These pure alkaloids were prescribed for pain, cough, and diarrhea. In the United States during the 19th century, morphine was used pre- and post-operatively as a painkiller for wounded soldiers during the Civil War. In 1870, chemists synthesized a reportedly non-addictive substitute for morphine named heroin. It was the German Bayer pharmaceutical company to first make available this drug, used as a cough suppressant for patient suffering from tuberculosis. Unfortunately, patient continued to die.

In 1914, the United States Congress passed the Harrison Narcotics Act which made illegal the possession of substances including medicinal opium, morphine, heroin, cocaine, and any new derivative. Among the major legal opium poppy growing areas today are farms in India, Turkey, and Australia. On the other hand, the major illegal growing areas can be found in Myanmar, Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.


How do Opioids and Opiates Work?

Opiates and opioids act on many places in the brain and nervous system, including the brain stem (controls breathing), the limbic system (controls emotions), and the spinal cord (that receives sensations from the body before sending them to the brain). They attach to specific proteins called opioid receptors and reduce the perception of pain.

Furthermore, they have the ability to pass from the bloodstream into the brain instantly. People who take these drugs, go from feeling normal to feeling deeply altered in a couple of minutes. Reportedly, the feeling is “blissful”, and “unforgettable”.

According to NIDA, opioids attack that part of the brain that records moments of sheer happiness. This is an evolutionary trait that helps us remember things that are good. The drugs hijack the brain’s reward center and the brain learns to remember the pleasure these opioids bring. Consequently, when something bad happens, the reward system asks for more drugs. This biochemical process is impossible to control. On the long run, the drugs start to suppress the body’s vital functions.

Evidence suggest that there is a close relationship between prescription opioids and heroin abuse. As prescription drugs become less available to obtain legally, many abusers switch to heroin as an alternative. Heroin is cheaper, and in many communities even easier to obtain than prescription drugs. Consequently, the number of heroin abusers doubled between 2005 and 2012, from 380,000 to 670,000.

Side Effects

The most common symptoms of opioid addiction are:

  • Mood swings
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Exhaustion
  • Respiratory depression
  • Muscle spasms
  • Vomiting
  • Insomnia
  • Constipation
  • Itching
  • Seizures
  • Sweating

Some of the psychological symptoms include:

  • Memory problems
  • Hallucinations
  • Delusions
  • Paranoia
  • Worsening of mental health
  • Decrease in emotional well-being

Furthermore, behavioral symptoms include:

  • Stealing narcotics
  • Decreased performance at school or work
  • Lying to family and friends
  • Social isolation
  • Restlessness
  • Lethargy
  • Forging prescriptions
  • Robbing pharmacies


Causes and Effects

Opioid addiction is the consequence of multiple factors, including:

Psychological: addiction may arise due to the individual’s attempt to self-medicate the symptoms of a co-occurring mental disorder.

Environmental: individuals who grow up in a chaotic environment and are surrounded by addiction, may develop addiction themselves in later life.

Biological: certain individuals are born with a lack of the neurotransmitter endorphin. In order to obtain these neurotransmitters, individuals may become victims of addiction.

Moreover, the long-term effects of opioid addiction can be devastating and life-threatening. The most frequent effects of opioid addiction include:

  • Job loss
  • Incarceration
  • Divorce
  • Bleeding ulcers
  • Domestic abuse
  • Child abuse
  • Homelessness
  • Liver damage
  • Kidney damage
  • Damage to major organs
  • Damage to brain structure
  • Overdose
  • Coma
  • Death

The effects of injecting the drug are as life-threatening as the other means of taking the opioid. Many addicts grind up tablets, mix them with water, and inject them. This can lead to heart infections and pulmonary embolism. Sometimes the injection site can get infected, causing gangrene where the flesh dies and then rots. This can also lead to blood infection. Moreover, if the addict happens to use an unsterile needle, chronic infections such as viral hepatitis and HIV can occur.


Opioids Abuse Treatment

There are several treatment options for opioid addiction: detoxification, inpatient rehabilitation, and outpatient therapy.

Opioid detoxification happens slowly, with the use of substitute medications like methadone and buprenorphine. Methadone relieves withdrawal symptoms and greatly helps with the detox process. Buprenorphine can shorten the length of detox and helps prevent dependence and misuse. Moreover, clonidine is also frequently used to help reduce anxiety, agitation, sweating, and cramping. The detox process happens under the supervision of a medical treatment team.

Some of the withdrawal effects may include:

  • Nausea
  • Stomach cramping
  • Bone and muscle pain
  • Goosebumps and chills
  • Diarrhea
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Anxiety
  • Intense cravings for the drugs
  • Insomnia
  • Dilated pupils
  • Irritation and agitation
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Seizures
  • Spiked fevers
  • Coma

Upon discharge from detox, many abusers continue their treatment at residential rehab. Rehab usually lasts from 30 to 90 days, and patient here spend their time attending group therapy, individual therapy sessions, and other activities that promote recovery from opioids.

Additionally, patients who graduate from residential rehab but require further support, can continue their treatment at a sober living facility. These sober living facilities offer patients the chance to rebuild their lives and develop effective coping skills to resist the temptation of abusing drugs.

Education is also a critical component to battling opioid addiction. NIDA is advancing addiction awareness, prevention, and treatment in primary care practices. Furthermore, NIDA is also directly reaching out to teens with its online education program. This program aims to discourage the use of prescription drugs among teens, providing factual information about the dangerous effects of opioids to the body and brain.

Moreover, support groups, such as Narcotics Anonymous and SMART Recovery, can be enormously helpful to people addicted to opiates:

For more information please call our Addiction Treatment Helpline at (844) 439-4765. This is a Free and completely confidential call. We are available 24/7. In many cases, your health insurance company will cover 100% of the treatment cost. So please call now.

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