Opiates are amongst the most potentially dangerous and addictive drugs on the market and are behind an epidemic of addictions in the United States. But what are they and how did they become such a problem? Here, we’re going to explore the facts behind opiates, why they’re so addictive, and what leads so many people to have an opiate problem.
What Are Opiates?
The term opiate is used to refer to drugs that are produced naturally in the wild, processed from opium poppy plants, such as morphine and pure opium. Opium poppy plants have been used for thousands of years, their use first recorded in ancient Sumeria (where southern Iraq is currently located.) Since then, its medicinal benefits in treating pain and improving sleep have been widely known.
Both opiates and opioids are widely prescribed by healthcare practitioners across the nation for a range of uses, with their pain-relieving properties being the most common reason. They are undoubtedly one of the most effective tools for managing pain relief, but the prevalence of opiate prescription also leads to a high likelihood of abuse and addiction. 1-in-5 people who are prescribed opiates are likely to abuse them by taking more than they need at some point or another. 1-in-10 are likely to develop a dependency on opiates.
Opiates and opioids are often confused or used in place of one another, even in medical settings. This is because they largely have the same impact on the brain and the same receptors in the brain are effective. Opioids, on the other hand, are synthetic drugs processed using morphine, such as fentanyl and oxycodone.
Both illicit and prescription opiates and opioids can be dangerous, and addiction to opiates is the leading cause of drug overdose in the United States, as well as the leading cause of drug-related deaths, causing suffering to millions of individuals as well as their communities and families.
Ever since their first discovery, opiates and opioids have been used both in the medical world as well as for purely recreational purposes. In medicine, opioids such as codeine and methadone are more widely used, but heroin and pure opium can still be found on the street, where it’s known by a variety of nicknames like gear, smack, horse, skag, white, and more.
Opiates come in a range of appearances, as well. Many prescription opiates and opioids are in pill form and can be a wide range of colors. Street opioids like heroin and opium are also boiled and injected directly into the veins or smoked. Heroin is usually sold as a powder, that can be a range of colors from white to brown, or can be sold as brown crystals commonly called “rocks.”
There’s no simple cure to an opiate addiction, but a carefully crafted treatment plan of detoxification, counselling, and habit management skills can and does help many recover from the grips of an addiction.
Opiates in Medicine
As mentioned, opiates are regularly used in medicine, as well. Morphine was one of the most commonly used anesthetics for surgery, though it has fallen out of favor somewhat as more doctors and dentists prefer local or topical alternatives that prove less dangerous. However, opiate and opioid pain medication is still widely prescribed to treat moderate to severe pain, including chronic pain. The most commonly used opiates in medicine include morphine, meperidine, codeine, hydrocodone, oxycodone and fentanyl.
Not everyone who is prescribed opiates is going to abuse them or become addicted. 80% of all people using prescription opiates never abuse them and 90% of those people do not develop any problems with addiction. With the advice of the doctor and supervision over pain levels and how effective opiates are in treatment, you can use them safely and healthily. However, the risk of abuse and addiction is always there.
How Opiates Are Abused
Despite the fact that many people use prescription opiates safely and responsibly, it is still one of the most common routes of entry of an opiate addiction. These addictions often begin when someone is using them as recommended, before they become less effective and they start abusing them to better manage their pain or look to stronger alternatives on the street/
One of the ways that opiates are commonly abused is by changing the route of administration. If they believe that swallowing opiates as pills take too long to come into effect, they may chew the drug to absorb it more easily, crush and snort the pills to get them into the bloodstream faster or even dissolve crushed opiates with water to inject them directly into the bloodstream. Others who abuse them may start taking them more often and in larger dosages than they are supposed to.
Though it’s not true of all addictions, many cases begin with a real need for pain treatment and a legitimate prescription for that purpose. Opiates are commonly prescribed as painkillers when treating chronic pain, illness, and after surgeries, but an addiction can develop from there. That addiction can grow as time goes on. When the prescription runs out or becomes too expensive, they may instead turn to street drugs like opium and heroin. Out of everyone with a heroin addiction, 4 in 5 started using heroin after progressing from abusing prescription opiate painkillers.
One of the best ways to avoid opiate abuse is to communicate clearly and honestly with your doctor about your medication and how effective it is. If your current pain medication isn’t working, then you can consult with them to find safe ways to improve your treatment.
Why Are Opiates So Addictive?
By nature, opiates are incredibly addictive. Regardless of which opiates or opioids you take, that risk of addiction is there. This is in part due to how it interacts with the brain after travelling through the bloodstream. In response to opiates, the brain produces a huge rush of dopamine and endorphins. The body produces these neurotransmitters naturally, both to kill pain and to create sensations of pleasure and reward, which can feel extremely satisfying. However, opiates cause these neurotransmitters to be produced in levels that simply isn’t possible natural. While it’s highly effective and providing pain relief, it also means that many people crave that high once more.
One of the biggest issues is when opiates are used repeatedly. In response, our brains decrease the natural production of these neurotransmitters. Not only does this mean that people don’t experience the same high without the drug, but also that they may feel less pleasure and satisfaction in general. This can lead to cravings for more opiates, which can eventually lead to addiction.
This addiction gets worse with time, as well. Our bodies grow tolerant to the effect of opiates. For those on prescription painkillers, they may find that they are not as effective at relieving pain as they once were, while those abusing opiates will start taking larger doses to experience the same high. From there, the body starts to become physically dependent on the drug. When it’s not available, the person may even start to experience withdrawal symptoms, such as nausea, profuse sweat, migraine headaches, anxiety and stress. Withdrawals happen because of the long-term effects of opiates and opioids on nerve cells in the brain. They become acclimated the presence of opioids, rewiring the brain to make it feel like those opioids. Just like our body has a pain response if we’re wounded, the brain has a similar response to the absence of what it now believes is a vital substance.
The psychological dependence begins to start at the same time, at which point a person may go to greater and greater lengths to procure opioids. At this stage, they’re in the throes of a full addiction. At this stage, the person may be fully aware that they have a problem with opiates and that it is having a negative effect on their lives. They have cravings that they have little-to-no power to resist and might find that the pleasures they once enjoyed in life, from food to hobbies to sex, simply do nothing for them now.
As a result of this dependence, people who were abusing opioids from a prescription may continue to fake their symptoms to continue the prescription, may attempt to get the same prescription from different doctors, or even get multiple prescriptions at the same time. In other cases, they may start turning to street drugs like opium and heroin because they are easier to acquire and also cost less.
Opioid addiction is a disease. It’s not just a habit that an addict can stop easily. With a little help, breaking that addiction is a distinct possibility, however. At Innovative Medicine, we provide a wide range of opioid addiction treatments. We can provide a safe, secure setting for a monitored and medicated detox and withdrawal process and help build the tools to fight addiction through group therapy and counselling. Get in touch if you or someone you love is fighting and opioid addiction. Together, we can cure this disease.