Addiction to opiates is a growing problem, especially among the youth population. Overprescribed painkillers and ease of obtaining opiates has contributed to an explosion in addiction issues and overdoses across the country. Opiate addiction is an insidious disease and can be nearly impossible to overcome alone. Treating opiate addiction is most effective with a combination of medications and therapies.
Opiates are morphine based drugs typically used to ease chronic and acute pain. Strong prescription opiates are used when injuries occur or after surgery to alleviate pain. They can also be used to treat pain associated with certain kinds of diseases, like cancer or nerve disease. Injuries that occur due to trauma may need the help of prescription pain management to reduce discomfort, but should not be used long-term. The longer opiates are used, the greater the potential for addiction.
When opiates are ingested, they are effective at eliminating physical pain, but also produce a euphoric “high” in the brain. The opiate causes the brain to produce greater amounts of dopamine, which cause the person to feel a greater sense of well-being and a general happiness. Over time, the body develops a tolerance to the opiate and more of the medication is needed in order to produce the same effect. In addition to this tolerance, with prolonged use, the brain stops producing dopamine on its own and needs the drug in order to feel normal again. If the opiate is stopped abruptly, the body will go through withdrawal because of its physical dependence on the drug.
Opiates are particularly dangerous because of their potential for life-threatening side effects and tremendous addictive nature. All morphine based drugs have the ability to suppress the body’s natural respiratory instinct. This is why in high doses, overdose deaths can occur. The brain stops telling the body to breathe and death can occur in short order because of lack of oxygen. If the effects of the opiate are reversed before death, there is still a great risk of brain injury due to lack of oxygen, resulting in permanent disability.
Many people begin taking opiates because of an injury or illness, as prescribed by their physician. Unfortunately, they have a high potential for physical dependence, regardless of original intent. Eventually, doctors will stop prescribing the drug, and the person turns to illegal methods of obtaining the opiate. The street value of medications containing opiates, like Percocet, Oxycontin, and Vicodin, are very high. The high cost of the drugs leads addicts to turn to less expensive means of obtaining an opioid, like heroin.
Heroin use is on the rise in this country in large part because of addiction to prescription pain medications. Heroin is particularly dangerous for a number of reasons. The typical way users get heroin into their system is either through snorting it or injecting it directly into the bloodstream. Clean, sterile needles can be hard to come by, so many addicts share their used needles and reuse dirty needles. Sharing needles with other users can lead to contracting blood-borne diseases, like HIV and hepatitis. Using dirty needles can introduce bacteria and other pathogens into the bloodstream causing abscesses and sepsis, which can be fatal. Withdrawal from opiates can produce many symptoms that range from uncomfortable to painful. These symptoms include fever, sweating, diarrhea, nausea, confusion, insomnia, anxiety, depression, and body aches. The withdrawal from opiates has been described as feeling like the worst case of the flu ever experienced. In fact, the withdrawal symptoms can be so difficult to withstand that most people do or say anything in order to get more of the drug. Stopping opiate use “cold turkey’ is nearly impossible for most people. This is why it is so important for sufferers to get help from professionals who are adept at providing supportive care during withdrawal.
There are medications that can be utilized to lessen and in some cases alleviate symptoms of opiate withdrawal altogether. The traditional medication used to reduce opiate withdrawal symptoms is methadone. Methadone itself is an opiate, but it has a longer, slower release in the body than other opiates and does not produce the euphoric high associated with other drugs. Methadone can be started to eliminate withdrawal symptoms and gradually tapered down to eliminate the body’s dependence on opiates. While methadone can be a powerful tool used in fighting opiate addiction, it does have side effects like sedation and lack of focus. Many clients have trouble tapering down and need a very slow taper over a long period of time in order to cease the opiate addiction completely.
Suboxone is another medication used to treat opiate addiction. It is the combination of an opioid called buprenorphine and naloxone. The naloxone part of the medication blocks the feeling of euphoria that opiate users have grown accustomed to. It also will block pain relief, so anyone taking the medication should let their healthcare providers know they are taking it, especially prior to any surgery. Suboxone reduces symptoms of opiate withdrawal because it is an opiate, but because the euphoric high is eliminated, it does not have a great potential for abuse the way other opiates do. However, since it is an opioid, the dosage does need to be monitored by a physician because like other narcotics, it can suppress the brain’s respiratory instinct and cause the body to stop breathing in high doses.
In addition to medications, therapy and counseling must be used to help in treating opiate addiction. Clients must incorporate new coping strategies in their lives so that they stay away from opiates in the future. Drug rehabs incorporate many different types of therapies including one on one counseling, group therapies, community service, and narcotics anonymous meetings.
Opiate addiction affects all aspects of a person’s life, from their employment to their family life and loved ones. Fortunately, with the correct combination of medication and therapy, the addiction to opiates can be overcome and recovered from.