Opioid Addiction: Definition, Common Signs & Options For Help


Were you prescribed pain medication after a surgery?

Maybe you have a chronic condition that causes extreme pain and your doctors prescribed an opioid medication to help.

You might be wondering if you actually need medication or are addicted to the substance.

You are not alone. Millions of people struggle with opioid addiction and require support to learn how to fight the urges and break free from its hold.

Fortunately, you or your loved one can beat opioid addiction by better understanding how to face this issue.

What Is an Opioid Addiction?

Addiction is an illness characterized by mental and/or physical dependence on a substance with the inability to stop or control your intake.

The most dangerous part of opioid addiction is that it often starts with a medical prescription.

OxyContin was billed as a wonder drug for years with physicians prescribing it regularly to help patients manage everything from pain after surgery or chronic conditions.

Unfortunately, the world soon discovered that opioids are highly addictive drugs linked to physical and mental dependence.

From the outside looking in, it’s easy to dismiss opioid addiction as not being a real disease.

But this is not true; different psychological changes make the individual dependent on the drug.

Do Opioid Addiction Urges Go Away?

No. Once an individual becomes addicted to opioids, the urge to do the drugs never disappears.

It is possible to enter recovery and learn to manage the urges, but the process is not simple.

The urge to do opioids is usually stronger because the withdrawal symptoms are quite severe.

Plus, opioid use alters brain chemistry, making it more challenging to ignore or replace the urge to use.

Forms of Opioid Addiction

Providing an overview of addiction to opioids is especially challenging because there are legal prescription versions and some illegal opioids, like heroin.

  • Prescription Pain Pill Addiction: Opioids are exceptional for managing pain, resulting in many physicians prescribing them post-surgery and for chronic conditions with no other options. However, addiction occurs quickly and the need to obtain more opioids persists long after the recovery process..
  • Heroin addiction: Heroin is a highly addictive illegal opioid substance that can occur either through smoking or injecting the drug. When people attempt to quit using the medicine, they experience extreme withdrawal symptoms.
  • Addiction to fentanyl: Fentanyl is a potent synthetic opioid frequently combined with other narcotics to increase potency. It’s frequently sold under different names, so users can develop an addiction without knowing that they are taking the drug.
  • Opioid addiction and mental health conditions: Individuals with other psychological and emotional disorders are more likely to become addicted to opioid medicines in an effort to treat their symptoms.

Many people see overlap between these forms of opioid addiction.

For example, if somebody starts on OxyContin following a knee surgery but can’t get anymore pills, they might shift to an alternative that’s easier to find, like heroin.

Opioid Addiction Statistics

Opioid addiction is a global issue affecting more than 16 million people and killing over 100,000 every year. The numbers increase more each year as the crisis spreads.

The United States is a hotspot in the global crisis. In 2022, the National Library of Medicine reported that opioid abuse and addiction affects some three million Americans.

Despite knowing about the addictive nature of prescription opioids, physicians continue to prescribe them.

A National Survey on Drug Use and Health revealed that 1.6 million people abused prescription opioids in 2019.

Even if agencies attempt to restrict prescription opioid use, it typically leads to more illicit drug use.

For example, heroin use has steadily increased since 2010 leading to a staggering 45 deaths per day due to opioid use.

Most overdose deaths result from opioids based on research from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) with the numbers steadily increasing over the past three decades.

What Are the Signs of Opioid Addiction

How do you know somebody is addicted to opioids? Whether you or a loved one seems to be okay after using OxyContin, there might be some indications that everything is not alright.

Frequent Use of Opioids Despite Clear Risks

Opioid addiction is often characterized by increased consumption of drugs despite the risks or problems associated with abuse.

The addicted individual disregards their physical, mental, and financial well-being to continue using opioids.

For instance, the individual may lose their job due to frequent absences and poor performance as their dependence on opioids grows.

The addiction supersedes all logic and reason for their well-being.

Craving for Opioids

One of the signs of opioid addiction is the overwhelming urge to use the drug.

This urge often manifests as constant thoughts about taking opioids or where to find them.

The addict will often feel the uncontrollable need to plan their day around opioid acquisition and consumption, even if they put themselves in jeopardy.

Physical Changes and Signs

Physical changes may manifest themselves, such as changes in sleep patterns. Other physical signs that will accompany an opioid addiction are:

  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Reduced libido
  • Poor hygiene
  • Excessive sweating
  • Shallow breathing
  • Gastrointestinal issues, like constipation or vomiting

These physical signs may not become apparent immediately after opioid addiction. However, long-term dependence on opioids can result in physical signs that are hard to miss.

Increased Tolerance

As a person consumes more opioids, their tolerance increases, meaning the effects wear off faster and they need to take more to avoid withdrawal symptoms.

In most cases, addicts will look for more potent opioids, like synthetic or illicit versions, to experience the same ‘high.’

Faster, More Intense Withdrawal Symptoms

Opioid addiction often comes with withdrawal symptoms after some period without using the drugs.

Some of the common withdrawal symptoms people suffering from opioid addiction will experience include the following:

  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting and nausea
  • Muscle aches
  • Insomnia and flu-like symptoms such as sweating and cold flashes
  • Increased anxiety and aggression

As the addiction grows, the symptoms grow more intense and occur sooner after the drug wears off.

Types of Unhealthy Opioid Behavior

Unhealthy behaviors might be the first indications of an opioid addiction because they present as drastic changes for many people.

  • Engaging in criminal activity to acquire opioids, such as stealing from friends, family, or business entities.
  • Socially isolating oneself from friends and family.
  • Increased displays of risky behaviors, such as fighting and using drugs in dangerous settings.
  • Erratic mood changes are often accompanied by a failure to maintain a set routine, such as attending work or fulfilling familial duties.
  • Failing to take an interest in activities or hobbies previously held in high regard.
  • Falling into debt and financial difficulty by spending one’s entire income on opioids.

What Is the Main Cause of Opioid Addiction?

Like most forms of addiction, several factors can influence an individual’s likelihood to develop an addiction, including genetic and environmental factors.

The most common source of opioid addiction in the United States is prescription painkillers, like OxyContin.

Consequently, those people suffering with chronic or acute pain become high-risk for developing an addiction.

Genetic factors often predispose people to addiction as the presence of certain genes increases one’s susceptibility to the onset of addiction.

The body’s endogenous opioid system is the main regulator of pleasure and pain. Some genetic variations act as risk factors for addiction when opioids get introduced into the body.

Environmental and lifestyle factors that predispose one to addiction can include the following:

  • Unemployment and poverty.
  • Family background or history of opioid abuse or addiction.
  • Availability of opioids or easy access to opioids.
  • History of abuse or addiction to other drugs, such as alcohol.
  • Experience stressful events such as abuse.
  • Association with individuals abusing opioids.

The presence of mental health problems is also another risk factor that may contribute to opioid addiction.

Individuals with conditions such as depression or anxiety disorders are more likely to get addicted to opioids.

How Opioid Addiction Affects the Brain

Opioids affect the brain by changing how it experiences euphoria, feelings of pain, and the internal reward system.

When opioids get introduced into the brain, they bind to the opioid receptors in the brain. The process creates a chemical reaction where the brain gets flooded with dopamine.

Dopamine affects the reward center and provides a feeling of pleasure. Opioids also make it difficult for the body to experience pain.

The binding of opioid and opioid receptors in nerve cells reduces how the brain perceives pain. Thus, the individual using the drug will experience pain relief.

Opioids also suppress breathing when taken in large amounts. As the amount of oxygen reaching the brain reduces, it becomes at risk of suffering permanent injury.

Prolonged oxygen loss can lead to hypoxia, often common in opioid overdose deaths.

What Is the Personality of an Opioid Addict?

People with opioid addiction often display various personality traits. Some of these traits are:

  • High impulsivity;
  • Lack of coping mechanism for stress;
  • High neuroticism;
  • Adventurous and open to risky behavior.

These personality traits act as risk factors for opioid addiction.

They also make it harder for individuals to recover from opioid addiction, especially if they try to withdraw from opioid use independently.

Is Opioid Addiction a Mental Health Issue?

Yes, opioid addiction is a mental health issue due to its adverse effects on the brain.

The production of dopamine when opioids get introduced into the body changes the brain chemistry.

The long-term use of opioids makes it difficult for the body to regulate dopamine production internally. Thus, an opioid addict will experience depression without opioids.

Opioids also produce endorphins, which act as pain relief and heighten pleasure.

People with mental health problems often become opioid addicts to numb any pain or anxiety they may be experiencing.

What Mental Illnesses Go Hand in Hand With Opioid Addiction?

The main mental illnesses associated with opioid addiction are:

  • Bipolar disorder;
  • Depression;
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder;
  • Personality disorders and schizophrenia.

People with mental health issues are more likely to get an opioid prescription despite their susceptibility to addiction.

How Do I Stop My Opioid Addiction?

The most effective way to stop addiction is to use medicine to replace opioids.

Most people struggling with opioid addiction have an underlying condition causing them acute or chronic pain.

Using alternative medicine to manage pain can help reduce or eliminate one’s dependence on opioids.

Can Opioid Addiction Ever Be Cured?

Unfortunately, like other types of addictions, opioid addiction is a lifelong condition.

But with the right treatment and support system, you can manage opioid addiction and handle any urges to relapse into drug use.

What Is the Most Common Treatment for Opioid Addiction?

Medication-assisted therapy is the most common treatment for opioid addiction.

Medication-assisted therapy reduces the severity of withdrawal symptoms experienced during the detox stage.

The medications usually used in the treatment of opioid addiction are:

  • Dolophine or Methadone
  • Buprenorphine
  • Naltrexone

Buprenorphine is usually administered to opioid addicts with moderate or severe drug use.

The drugs are effective in binding with opioid receptors. Thus, the individual will experience decreased cravings for conventional opioids.

Naltrexone is effective in blocking opioid receptors altogether.

The drug is useful in rendering opioids ineffective when ingested, thereby discouraging abuse or intake, but it’s not the only option to consider.

  • Inpatient programs for detoxification
  • Various types of therapy or counseling, such as cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Outpatient treatment
  • Self-help programs

What Can I Replace Opioids With?

Consider replacing opioids with less addictive pain management drugs, like ibuprofen, lidocaine, or injections.

Some depression medications have been known to help with chronic pain management.

Along with switching to a different pain medication, some lifestyle changes can help with pain management.

  • Physical exercise
  • Chiropractic interventions
  • Recreational activities
  • Dietary changes

Frequently Asked Questions

Are you still pondering some serious questions about opioid addiction? These frequently asked questions might fill in the gaps.

What is the biggest side effect of opioids?

One of the side effects of opioids is drowsiness and feeling sleepy. Nausea, constipation, and mental fog are other common side effects of opioids.

The nature and severity of the side effects depend on the quantity of opioids consumed.

Are opioids still legal?

Opioids are still legal when used for pain management. However, many places have implemented laws on the quantity of opioids physicians can prescribe their patients.

New York State legalized a law barring opioid prescription for acute pain to a 7-day supply.

Additional Addictions To Be Aware Of

Opioid addiction is often associated with other substance abuse and drug addictions.

  • Alcohol addiction is characterized by long-term use and dependence on alcohol. It presents a lot like opioid addiction in some cases, but other people can still function while drinking excessively.
  • Nicotine addiction often develops after long-term use or abuse of cigarettes. The pleasing effects of nicotine usually last for a short while, making it necessary to continue smoking.
  • Exercise addiction is characterized by an unhealthy obsession with one’s body image and physical fitness. People with an exercise addiction will often continue exercising despite any negative consequences.

Wrapping Up

Opioid addiction is a global issue that can destroy individuals and their families. The best thing you can do is get help when you recognize a problem in yourself or a loved one.

There are substantial resources available to help people with this type of addiction.

We hope that this article can help you or your loved ones recover.


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