According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), “Every day, more than 115 people in the United States die after overdosing on opioids.”
Let that statistic sink in for a moment.
Opioids, which historically were used to treat pain conditions, are easily addictive. The misuse of prescribed medications, or ingestion of street drugs such as heroin or fentanyl, leads to the potential for abuse, addiction, and overdose.
Taking time to learn about the history of opioids and how they affect an individual will help you understand how they can lead to addiction, and what is necessary to get help if you’re experiencing struggling with substance problems yourself.
The History of Opioid Usage and Misuse
NIDA reports that “In the late 1990s, pharmaceutical companies reassured the medical community that patients would not become addicted to prescription opioid pain relievers, and healthcare providers began to prescribe them at greater rates.”
With an aging population and a severe lack of pain management options, this reassurance caused medical doctors everywhere to prescribe opioid medication at a high frequency to their patients. Unfortunately, they simply didn’t have the information or knowledge to understand how addicting this drug could be, and the epidemic of misuse began.
Patients started seeking prescriptions at higher doses or an increased pill count, and when they couldn’t get them from their doctors, some turned to illegal measures, such as buying opioid medications on the street or even turning to other drugs in the opioid family, such as heroin or fentanyl.
Increasing the dosage outside of the care of a doctor or being under the influence of street drugs began to cause overdoses in alarmingly high numbers. In fact, recent NIDA stats report that “Opioid overdoses increased 30 percent from July 2016 through September 2017 in 52 areas in 45 states.”
The opioid epidemic isn’t new to this country, but unfortunately, it also isn’t over.
Hows Opioids Can Lead to Addiction
Before understanding how easy it is to become addicted to opioids, it’s first important to understand how they work. Opioids allow endorphins to be released in your brain. These neurotransmitters are what makes people feel good, by increasing the feeling of pleasure receptors and decreasing the body’s perception of pain.
So, for a person who previously suffered from pain-related issues, an opioid prescription may help them finally get relief from some of their suffering. However, it isn’t only long-standing pain sufferers that may be prescribed an opiate by their doctor. Prescriptions can follow everything from a routine procedure or surgery to an emergent situation such as a car accident or a broken bone.
It’s also important to note that because opioids are helping to deliver endorphins, they’re also masking the feelings of depression and anxiety from which some individuals may suffer. Even though they’re not being prescribed to treat these conditions, the opioids help individuals deal with depression and anxiety — at least in the very short term.
Yet, what happens is the pain relief from the opioids wears off and the individual needs to take more of them in order to maintain the feeling of pleasure and decrease the feeling of pain. This can be completely ordinary for some people, but for others, the need for higher doses can become problematic. In addition, this is where depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues can reappear, compelling the individual to block them out with increased use.
This is also where physical tolerance becomes an issue.
According to the Mayo Clinic, “When you take opioids repeatedly over time, your body slows its production of endorphins.” And if these neurotransmitters aren’t being delivered as quickly or as strongly as before, individuals will need higher doses to feel the relief they once felt. Their bodies literally get used to the amount of the opioids in their systems, and because of this, the original dosage doesn’t deliver the relief it once did.
This leads to individuals seeking stronger prescriptions or larger doses. And, unfortunately, if their doctor is unwilling to prescribe in that manner, some individuals will turn to street drugs in order to meet their addictions, causing an even bigger potential problem in the long term.
Dealing With an Opioid Addiction
The truth is, anyone can develop an addiction to opioids– though it’s impossible to know exactly who might become addicted. Opioid medications aren’t inherently “bad,” they just need to be prescribed carefully and for short-term treatment.
Work with your doctor to take the lowest dose possible, for the shortest time needed, exactly as prescribed.
The Mayo Clinic’s advice to anyone worried about developing an addiction to opioids is to “work with your doctor to take the lowest dose possible, for the shortest time needed, exactly as prescribed.”
Though, if you’re already struggling with an opioid addiction — whether brand new or long term — know that you have options for treatment. When a person heals the root causes of depression, anxiety, or other issues, and learns how to practice self-care, they remove the need to medicate in the long term.
Remember, it is possible to move from a life consumed by opioids to one of peace and tranquility.
If you’re struggling with an addiction, don’t go “cold turkey” and stop taking any prescribed opioid medication or street drugs on your own. Doing so may have severe side effects. A medical professional will be able to help you taper off anything you’re currently taking. Additionally, a medical detoxification facility may be the best first step in seeking treatment for the addiction.
Working with your doctor and attending an inpatient detox are simply the first steps in healing. To recover from an opioid addiction, you must work through the emotional baggage that helped to create the problem in the first place. Here is the time to embrace counseling and self care.