White and blue opioid pills against a black background.
Opioids are used as pain relief medication but can become highly addictive if misused.

Understanding Opioid Addiction

In this article we look at how to help someone who is struggling with addiction recover, signs and symptoms of opioid addiction, different types of opioids and why addiction occurs.

11 Symptoms and Signs of Opioid Addiction

As with most addictions, some symptoms occur when there is a physical dependence on a drug, as well as some behavioral signs of addiction. Some indicators include:

  1. Needing to use more of the drug to get the same effect that you had initially.
  2. Feeling unwell, or symptoms of withdrawal, when you suddenly stop taking the drugs.
  3. Cravings.
  4. Opioid intoxication.
  5. Changing your behavior to crush, snort, or smoke opioids instead of following the recommendation from your doctor.
  6. An inability to quit or cut down.
  7. Spending a great portion of your day going through the cycle of getting, using and recovering from the drugs.
  8. Running out of your prescriptions early.
  9. Failure to fulfill work, home and other responsibilities.
  10. Giving up once enjoyable activities.
  11. Drawing on multiple sources for opioids.

Additional symptoms occur in the event of an overdose. In an overdose situation, the patient may experience intermittent or full loss of consciousness, confusion, constricted pupils, nausea/vomiting, shallow/restricted breathing, clammy skin, extreme exhaustion or an inability to wake up. In the event of an overdose, medical intervention is required immediately.

What Are Opioids?

Doctors prescribe opioids for a range of medical reasons as a source of pain relief. Opioids are intended for short-term use and are safe when prescribed by a doctor and taken exactly as instructed.

Opioids are a bit different than opiates. Opiates are natural substances that come from opium, a chemical found in poppy seeds and plants. Opioids are synthetic (or partially synthetic) chemical substances made in a lab, that mirror the same effects as opiates. These substances have deep calming effects, which are both good and bad; patients can manage their pain, but the euphoria may turn into an addiction if the drugs are abused.

Types of Opioids

There are two distinguishable types of opioids: antagonists and agonists.

Antagonists, such as naltrexone and naloxone, are typically used to help with detoxification as part of addiction treatment. Antagonists are less addictive than agonists.

Agonists are the much more addictive opioids and opiates, which can become problematic when used without a proper prescription or without following instructions from a doctor. Agonists interact with specific receptors in the brain to produce feelings of euphoria and imitate the effects of the endorphins (which your body produces naturally). Drugs that fall into this category are:

  • Heroin.
  • Fentanyl.
  • Oxycodone (OxyContin).
  • Hydrocodone (Vicodin).
  • Codeine.
  • Morphine.
  • Davocet/Darvon.
  • Demerol.

What Is Opioid Addiction?

Addiction is a neurological disease that compromises one’s physical and mental health. Opioids are prescribed for pain relief, and when used, they produce a feeling of euphoria and tranquility. When opioids are taken in a greater amount or more often than prescribed, a person may start to depend on that feel-good result.

Addiction occurs when misuse of these drugs becomes a physical dependence—there becomes a need to keep using the medication to feel normal. Physical dependence can lead to cravings which may become out-of-control, drug-seeking behavior. Addiction can lead to overdose incidents and, in some cases, death.

How Does Opioid Addiction Start?

In many cases, addiction to opioids often stems from a prescription for pain relief following an accident or injury. These medications are given with very specific instructions, however, the longer a person uses a medication, the more they build up an increased tolerance. As a result, some folks take their medication into their own hands and consume larger or more frequent doses than recommended to achieve the desired feeling of euphoria. If dependence becomes severe enough, patients may attempt to get more opioids through other methods, such as attempting to get prescriptions from different doctors or finding an opioid option on the street instead.

Causes of Opioid Addiction

Opioids trigger receptors in the brain to produce that feel-good sensation. Activating the mu-receptors in the brain triggers the release of endorphins. Endorphins promote feelings of calm and relaxation, a sensation that is highly addictive. Opioids depress the central nervous system, which is why you feel more relaxed but will also affect your coordination, judgment and heart rate.

Some folks are more at risk of developing an addiction to opioids. The risk factors are:

  • A history of substance use issues.
  • Family history of substance problems.
  • History of pre-adolescent sexual abuse.
  • History of psychiatric problems.

Make sure your physician is aware of any risk factors before they prescribe opioids as pain relief.

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Treatment of Opioid Addiction

For treatment to be effective, a structured program and support are necessary. The treatment with the most effective results is inpatient detox followed by inpatient rehab. Rehabilitation facilities have specialized programs for those with substance use disorders.

Opioid agonist therapies may be used in addition to addiction treatment counseling. These medications in the right doses help eliminate withdrawal symptoms, which will help kick off treatment on the right foot. Addiction treatment counseling helps chart a course for withdrawal management, day treatment, and other group support. Counseling may be done individually or in a group setting.

12-step programs, such as Narcotics Anonymous, fall under the umbrella of addiction treatment counseling. These programs help keep you accountable and are available when you need some extra support.

Cognitive behavioral therapy connects patients with other facets of themselves to see how addiction may have become a problem and helps them move forward by forming new, positive behaviors instead.

In Conclusion

Getting through opioid addiction is a lifelong pursuit. There will be tough days while working through recovery, but with all the resources available to help, there are options to lean on when you are ready.