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About Opioid Abuse

It’s no secret that opioid abuse is a widespread problem in the U.S. From prescription opioid abuse to drugs like heroin and street fentanyl, overdose deaths in America have climbed steadily since the mid-1990s. Opioids are among the most addictive substances available.

The problem is daunting, and the opioid abuse overdose statistics are eye-watering. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, nearly 50,000 people in the United States died from opiate-related overdoses in 2019 alone. However, there are reasons for hope.

The rise in the abuse of opioids has brought a corresponding rise in demand for effective, evidence-based opioid addiction treatment.

What Are Opioids?

Opioids are drugs most often used to treat moderate to severe pain in prescription form. All opioids are either derived from opium, an extract of the poppy plant, or synthesized.

Most prescription opioids, such as oxycodone (Percocet, OxyContin) and hydrocodone (Vicodin, Lorcet), are called semi-synthetic because they are partly derived from natural compounds. Fully synthetic opioids include fentanyl and buprenorphine. Illicit drugs like heroin are also opioids.

All opioids are addictive. Use of an opioid, as prescribed or illicitly, can create opioid dependence in as little as ten days. If a person has regularly taken opioids long enough to develop a dependence, they will experience some physical withdrawal symptoms when they stop. Opiates are most often prescribed after a person either has an injury or surgical procedure resulting in moderate to severe pain afterward.

There are many examples of prescription opioid pain medications on the market today, and it can be hard to keep track of all the brand names and variations. As a rule, though, any opioid medication in the United States is a controlled substance. This means a doctor’s prescription will be required, a government photo ID to pick up the prescription, and refills will be strictly limited and controlled. Chances are any pain medication you receive that falls under all those conditions is likely opioid and potentially addictive.

Below we’ve provided a list of common prescription medications along with some of their brand names. Note that buprenorphine is included as it is a synthetic opioid. However, it is most often prescribed for opioid detox or medication-assisted treatment/harm reduction. Buprenorphine was engineered for these purposes and lacks the euphoric side effects of conventional opioids, making it far less likely to be abused. However, medium to long-term use does require a careful taper/titration to mitigate potential withdrawal symptoms.

Common Prescription Opioid Medicines:

  • Oxycodone (Percocet, OxyContin, Percodan, Tylox)
  • Hydrocodone (Vicodin, Lortab, Xodol, Zohydro)
  • Morphine (MSContin, Kadian, Avinza)
  • Oxymorphone (Opana)
  • Hydromorphone (Dilaudid)
  • Fentanyl (Actiq, Duragesic, Sublimaze)
  • Codeine (Tylenol 3, Antituss AC)
  • Methadone (Methadose, Dolophine)
  • Buprenorphine (Suboxone, Subutex, Zubsolv)

Awareness of Opioid Abuse

While physicians are far more aware of the dangers of opioid abuse and dependence than in the past, it remains a problem. Medical science is developing non-habit-forming analgesic medications, but they have not yet been able to replace opioids completely. As long as opioids exist, legal or otherwise, opioid abuse will continue to be a threat. Education about opioid abuse and vigilance is a must.

Many people prescribed narcotic pain medications end up addicted through no fault of their own. They may take the drug long enough for physical dependence to take root. Others may take medicine for a prolonged period and find that the prescribed amount no longer has the desired effect, a phenomenon known as tolerance.

For many, the only way to overcome opioid abuse is clinical treatment at a program that can address every facet of addiction. Research shows that attending a qualified dual-diagnosis opioid abuse treatment program like ours dramatically improves outcomes. Not only are people who get the proper treatment more likely to end their abuse of opioids successfully, but they are also more likely to remain sober in the long term.

Opioid Abuse and Its Effects

Most opioids, aside from synthetics like buprenorphine and methadone, produce euphoric side effects. The euphoria, sense of warmth and well-being, and calm these drugs create are part of the allure that can trigger opioid abuse behavior. A person who doesn’t take opioids regularly is just as likely to notice adverse effects like nausea, itchiness, dizziness, and drowsiness as they are to note the euphoric effects. However, when a person becomes habituated to taking these drugs over time and uses them in large quantities, the “high” they seek typically dominates, perceptually or in fact.

Of course, the adverse effects of opioid abuse are just as present as before. When a person becomes opioid-dependent and begins the cycle of opioid abuse, a myriad of negative consequences ensue. The physical side effects often include constipation, sometimes severe enough to warrant medical intervention, dry mouth, watery eyes, itchy skin, daytime drowsiness, and “nodding” or falling asleep at inappropriate times. As addiction escalates, the desire for the drug and the fear of withdrawal often drives people to negative and even desperate behaviors that are seemingly out of character for them. It’s not unheard of for someone in the grips of opioid abuse to stealing medication from others, attempt to falsify prescriptions (a felony offense), or steal money or valuables to finance a habit once a legitimate doctor’s prescription can no longer satiate the desire.

In fact, many people who eventually come to opioid abuse treatment for heroin addiction began as patients with legitimate and legal prescriptions for pain medications. When awareness about opioid abuse rose in the wake of the OxyContin epidemic, prescriptions for narcotic pain medications became harder and harder to get. One unintentional side effect was that it drove many opioid-dependent people to the street to buy heroin or fake prescription tablets made with fentanyl. This, in turn, helped cause a spike in overdose deaths. 94% of respondents in one survey said they often chose to use heroin over prescription opioids because it is more affordable and easier to obtain.

The Spectre of Opioid Overdose

Overdose is a genuine danger in opioid abuse. Opioids, by themselves, carry a risk of fatal overdose leading to respiratory arrest. As potent central nervous system depressants, though, they also have a compound effect when combined with other drugs in the same class. People engaged in opioid abuse sometimes combine these drugs with others, such as benzodiazepines like Xanax or Klonopin, and alcohol or non-benzodiazepine sedatives like Ambien. The compound effect of combining powerful medications in the same class can make opioid abuse especially dangerous. These effects can be unpredictable and fatal.

Those who combine opioids and other substances, especially CNS depressants, simultaneously increase their risk of fatal overdose. This mixing is called polysubstance abuse.

Some signs of opioid overdose include:

  • Unconsciousness
  • Confusion/disorientation
  • Cool, clammy skin
  • Nausea/Vomiting
  • Constricted pupils
  • Shallow, restricted breathing
  • Appearing very pale or bluish skin
  • Extreme sleepiness/inability to wake up

Many who overdose and survive sometimes use it to ‘take stock’ of their situation and ask for help with their opioid abuse. However surprising as it may seem, often an overdose or brush with death is not enough to cease the abuse of opioids. It is often worth considering a professional intervention in that case.

NARCAN (Naloxone) Saves Lives

The drug naloxone, better known under its brand name NARCAN, has been a lifesaver. The drug was invented decades ago, but the recent spike in opioid overdoses brought it into the public consciousness much more so than in the past. Thankfully under public pressure, the FDA and some forward-thinking politicians worked to change the status of this drug and make it much more available to the public, even without a prescription.

The nasal spray form of naloxone has already saved thousands of lives by making this medication much easier for non-specialists to use. It works by rapidly reversing the effects of opioids. Administered in the middle of an opioid overdose in time, it can be enough to change the CNS depressant effects to ward off respiratory arrest and stabilize them until they can reach a hospital. Remember that NARCAN is not a substitute for treatment in an emergency room, much less an opioid abuse treatment program like ours at SBMHC.

But it can be a lifeline during a potentially fatal overdose. NARCAN is now available without a prescription, and there are even programs that provide it free of charge. If you or someone you love would benefit from having NARCAN on hand, call us for information.

Treatment For Opiate Addiction

The most effective treatment for opioid dependence is medical detox followed by at least 30 days of intensive treatment, but there is no such thing as getting “too much help” for a problem. Research shows that people who spend more time in treatment for opioid abuse are less likely to relapse and far more likely to establish long-term recovery.

As an evidence-based treatment program, we look to science and peer-reviewed research for answers – Science informs our treatment methods. That is a must because the results can be literally a matter of life or death in this area of medicine. There is no room for half-measures or uncertainty.

We have several treatment options, including specialized programs to help those suffering from substance use disorders, including opioid abuse. Our diverse treatment portfolio features all of the critical ingredients for a successful recovery from addiction or any other mental health disorder.

If you are interested in the unique treatments and programs we have to offer, please contact us today. We welcome the opportunity to help you or your loved one build a foundation for an enduring recovery.


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