Opioid Use Disorder: Definition, Symptoms, & How to Treat


Opioid addiction impacts millions of people every year, whether it’s the misuse of illegal drugs or prescribed opioid medications. In any case, timely opioid use disorder (OUD) treatment is essential to improve users’ well-being and prevent worse conditions, such as opioid overdose.

This article will cover everything you need to know about opioid addiction treatment, from its definition to the different methods available to start living a substance-free life.

What Are Opioids?

Opioids, also called narcotics, are a kind of drug that is prescribed for pain relief.

Your doctor or healthcare provider might prescribe opioids such as hydrocodone, fentanyl, oxycodone, or tramadol to help you cope with pain post-surgery, after an injury, or cancer-related pain. There are also illegal opioids that aren’t used for medical conditions, such as heroin and fentanyl.

Most of these drugs are generally safe when used for a short period. However, if you exceed the period prescribed by your doctor, you become liable to opioid dependence, also known as opioid use disorder (OUD).

How Do Opioids Work?

Opioids work by binding to receptors in the brain called opioid receptors, which are responsible for regulating pain and pleasure in the body.

When an opioid binds to these receptors, it can help reduce the feeling of pain and produce a sense of relaxation along with mild euphoric and sedative effects. These euphoric effects are one of the reasons people become addicted to opioids.

People with chronic pain conditions can also become addicted to opioids due to their analgesic effects.

What Is Opioid Use Disorder (OUD)?

Opioid use disorder, or opioid addiction, is a severe medical condition characterized by opioid drug abuse. It involves both psychological and physical dependence, along with several negative health impacts.

People with opioid addiction might want to stop taking the drugs but have a hard time doing so because they experience highly unpleasant withdrawal symptoms when they stop. These symptoms can range from severe pain to psychological and social manifestations.

Even worse, opioid use disorder can eventually lead to an opioid overdose, which can be fatal without instant medical attention.

Symptoms of Opioid Use Disorder

There are several common signs and symptoms of addiction and substance use disorders. However, opioid use disorder has specific symptoms related to opioid abuse, such as the following:

  • Physical Dependence: This occurs when your body gets used to the presence of opioids and can’t function properly without them. If you stop taking opioids, you experience the withdrawal symptoms of physical dependence, such as nausea, muscle aches, severe pain, and sweating.
  • Opioid Cravings: Strong physical and emotional urges to use opioids, despite knowing the potential negative consequences.
  • Uncontrolled Drug Use: People with opioid use disorder usually cannot control their opioid drug abuse despite knowing the negative impacts and dangers to their health.
  • Drowsiness: The feeling of being excessively tired or sedated.
  • Difficulty Sleeping: Experiencing irregular sleep patterns or insomnia.
  • Isolation from Loved Ones: Withdrawing from social interactions with friends and family, often due to shame or regret.
  • Criminal Activity: People with opioid use disorder often steal from loved ones or from work to acquire money to buy opioids.
  • Financial Problems: The high cost of acquiring opioids often leads to huge debts and financial problems.

How Common Is Opioid Use Disorder?

According to the NIH (National Institute on Drug Abuse), more than 2.5 million individuals in the United States struggle with opioid use disorder. Opioid addiction led to 28,000 deaths as a result of opioid overdose in 2014.

Cleveland Clinics estimates that more than 20 million people worldwide suffer from opioid addiction, with over 120,000 people dying from overdose each year.

Opioid Use Disorder Treatment

Opioid use disorder is a complicated condition that needs to be treated on a person-by-person basis, considering each individual’s unique needs and psycho-physical situation.

Luckily, numerous treatment methods are available for opioid use disorder, from behavioral therapies to medication-assisted treatment services.


Your healthcare provider might prescribe several types of medications to treat opioid use disorder. The most commonly used ones are methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone.


Methadone works by binding to the same opioid receptors in the brain that other opioids bind to, but in a way that does not produce the same euphoric effects as other opioids. This way, you’ll become less dependent on opioids, and you’ll be able to slowly cut them off completely.

Methadone can help reduce withdrawal symptoms and cravings associated with opioid addiction because it takes a long time for the body to clear it, in contrast to substances causing opioid addiction.

Being a long-acting medication, methadone helps experience fewer cravings, and eventually, it becomes easier to stay sober and stop using opioids.


Buprenorphine is another medication used to reduce opioid cravings, but unlike methadone, it doesn’t cause euphoria. It’s also not as strong, meaning there’s a smaller chance of an overdose, which is why many physicians prefer it over methadone.

Buprenorphine is usually taken orally once per day, but you could also be prescribed monthly injections, skin patches, or six-month skin implants.

Both methadone and buprenorphine can be taken safely for long periods, but before you stop taking them, you should consult your healthcare provider first. They can help you gradually taper the dose to avoid withdrawal symptoms similar to those of opioid use disorder.


Naltrexone is different from methadone and buprenorphine. It doesn’t activate the opioid receptors, but instead, it blocks them. If you’ve taken opioids, they can’t make you high if their receptors are blocked by naltrexone.

This is also why naltrexone doesn’t help with withdrawal symptoms or cravings; it only prevents you from getting high.

Naltrexone is typically taken after your body is entirely free of opioids. In other words, your healthcare provider might first start you on methadone or buprenorphine to slowly eliminate opioids from your system. After 7-10 days, your doctor might start you on a monthly naltrexone injection.

Naltrexone is mainly used to prevent relapse for people who are in rehab or those being treated for a medication use disorder. Family members are usually trained to administer naltrexone if their loved one falls off the wagon or relapses.

Combination Drugs

Some medications contain a mixture of buprenorphine and naloxone, which is a drug used in case of opioid overdose.

This combination works synergistically to reduce your withdrawal symptoms and makes it less likely for you to misuse buprenorphine or get used to it.


Counseling is just as important as medications since research shows addiction has both physical and psychological impacts. With proper counseling and behavioral therapies, you can prevent relapses and help manage the symptoms of opioid addiction.

This can also help improve your feeling of self-worth and prevent problems at home and at work.

There are several methods of counseling and behavioral therapies, including the following:

  • Contingency Management: This treatment approach involves using positive reinforcement techniques such as rewards or incentives to help you stay on the right track. It encourages opioid users to follow their medication schedules and attend meetings.
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): This approach helps users understand their addiction more, which makes them take control of their condition and believe they can get better. A deeper understanding means that users can follow their treatment and cope with their condition more easily.
  • Family Therapy: Involving family members or loved ones can provide the support opioid users need to fight their addiction. This adds a level of accountability and also encourages your to adhere to your treatment schedule.
  • Motivational Therapy: This kind of one-on-one therapy helps build motivation to stick to the treatment plan and improve daily life quality.
  • Group Counseling: Going to support groups and meetings can help opioid users feel they’re not alone. Listening to other people’s struggles and coping strategies can greatly improve their therapy outcomes.

What To Do if a Loved One Suffers From Opioid Addiction

The SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) encourages anyone suffering from opioid use disorder or opioid withdrawal to seek professional help.

The SAMHSA offers several support hotlines you can contact. Specialized centers such as Curednation also offer treatment services for addiction, depression, trauma, and more.

Wrapping Up

Treating opioid addiction is like navigating a dense forest. The path forward is unclear, you’re bound to run into obstacles, and without guidance, the risk of getting lost is high.

Hopefully, the tools and information in this article can act as your guide on the journey of opioid treatment.

The only thing left to do is to get the help you or your loved ones need and deserve.


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