Opioid Addiction, Health Effects, & Treatment

Prescription opioids are often misused, typically at higher doses than prescribed, for their euphoric, sedating effects, which are similar to that of heroin (an illegal opioid). Like heroin, prescription opioids are powerfully addictive and carry a high risk of overdose when misused.1

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What are Prescription Opioids?

Prescription opioids are medications typically prescribed for pain relief. They are either made from chemicals derived naturally from the opium poppy plant, made synthetically in a lab, or made from a combination of both.1

Opioids are chemical compounds that bind to opioid receptors in the body and have long been regarded as the most effective class of drugs for relieving moderate and severe pain.2 When they bind to receptors in nerve cells throughout the brain and body, they block the pain messages sent through the spinal cord to the brain.1, 3

Most Common Prescription Opioids

Opioids are often prescribed for relief of moderate to severe pain.1 They require a prescription to obtain legally.

Common prescription opioids include:1

Illicit Opioids

Other opioids are illegal and more commonly obtained through the black market. These include:4, 5, 6

  • Heroin.
  • Opium.
  • Illicitly manufactured fentanyl.
Signs of Abuse

What is Opioid Use Disorder?

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) defines opioid use disorder (OUD)—commonly known as opioid addiction—as “a problematic pattern of opioid use leading to clinically significant impairment or distress.”7

Diagnosis of an OUD is made by a medical professional, however the DSM-5 outlines the following 11 criteria for medical professionals to use when diagnosing a patient as having an OUD:7

  • Taking opioids in higher doses or over more time than intended.
  • Wanting to reduce or trying and failing to reduce use of opioids.
  • Spending lots of time and energy seeking and using an opioid or recovering from its effects.
  • Craving opioids.
  • Using opioids despite them interfering with work, school, or home obligations.
  • Using opioids despite them causing problems in the patient’s social life or in their interpersonal relationships.
  • Missing important social, work-related, or recreational activities due to opioid use.
  • Using opioids in physically dangerous situations.
  • Using opioids even with a physical or mental problem caused or worsened by opioid use.
  • Developing a tolerance to opioids (requiring more of the substance to feel the same effect or feeling less of the effect of the same dose).
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when ceasing opioid use or reducing use, or taking opioids to relieve withdrawal symptoms.

Meeting 2 or more of the above criteria within a 12-month period may result in an OUD diagnosis; however, a person may develop a tolerance or experience withdrawal even when using opioids according to a physician’s recommendation, and those instances would not constitute meeting that criterion for OUD.7

Misusing Prescription Medication

While prescription opioids are valuable tools in treating pain, misuse frequently occurs voluntarily or develops over time.8 Examples of misuse of a prescription drug are:9

  • Taking a higher dose of the drug than prescribed.
  • Taking someone else’s medication.
  • Using prescription drugs to get high.
  • Using a prescription drug in a way that it is not intended to be used (e.g., crushing and snorting a pill).
Health Risks

What Are the Health Risks of Taking Prescription Opioids?

Using a prescription opioid to relieve pain for a short period of time while following a doctor’s recommendations seldom leads to serious medical problems.1 However, taking any opioid carries a risk of addiction and a risk of a potentially lethal overdose. There are also some common side effects that may occur, even with the proper use of opioids. These include:1, 10

  • Tiredness and dizziness.
  • Dry mouth.
  • Constipation.
  • Itching and perspiration.
  • Reduced libido, strength, and energy.
  • Lowered pain threshold.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Depression.
  • Slowed breathing.
  • Tolerance and physical dependence.

Other Health Effects

Misuse of opioids increases the likelihood of experiencing the side effects listed in the section above—notably tolerance and physical dependence, which increases the likelihood of developing opioid use disorder (OUD).11

Slowed breathing caused by an overdose of opioids may lead to hypoxia (lack of oxygen to the brain). This may cause immediate or long-term harm, such as coma, brain damage, and death.1

While uncommon, some people that misuse prescription opioids will eventually progress to using heroin.8

People who misuse opioids also are at increased risk of experiencing a life-threatening or even fatal overdose.8

What Does an Opioid Overdose Look Like?

There is a common misconception that misusing legal drugs is safer than using illicit drugs, when in truth, misuse of any opioid—legal or otherwise—is extremely dangerous. In fact, over 20% of fatal overdoses in the U.S. in 2019 involved prescription opioids, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).12

Signs of an opioid overdose include:1, 13

  • Constricted or “pinpoint” pupils.
  • Slowed, shallow or stopped breathing.
  • Gurgling or choking.
  • Falling limp or losing consciousness (not being able to wake or speak).
  • Lowered heartrate (i.e., pulse).
  • Losing color and temperature in the skin or turning blue.

How Do You Treat Opioid Addiction?

Opioid use disorder (OUD) is a chronic but treatable illness characterized by the compulsive use of opioids despite negative consequences.7 With effective treatment, many people are able to live fulfilling, sober lives in recovery. Opioid addiction rehabilitation is usually performed using a combination of medication-assisted treatment and behavioral therapy.14

Treatment at most addiction centers consists of:14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19

  • Medical detox. Opioid withdrawal symptoms are seldom life-threatening. However, withdrawal is often very unpleasant and medical emergencies—while rare—can occur. Medically supervised detoxification allows staff to ensure patients are comfortable and safe, responding as necessary to complications or emergencies.
  • Rehabilitation treatment. After detoxification, many patients will transition to rehabilitation treatment, performed either in an inpatient/residential or outpatient setting, which is where patients undergo the bulk of their behavioral therapy sessions. Therapy helps motivate patients to remain in recovery, develop skills to identify and overcome triggers, and rewire harmful thought patterns that lead them to misuse opioids. Patients with co-occurring disorders often benefit from simultaneous treatment for other mental health conditions that occur alongside opioid use disorder.
  • Medication-assisted treatment (MAT). Medication can significantly help those with OUD to retain them in addiction recovery treatment. With MAT for OUD, this often means they will be prescribed an opioid agonist, like buprenorphine (e.g., Subutex, Suboxone) or methadone to reduce cravings and help prevent relapse. Conversely, opioid antagonists, like naltrexone, helps to prevent a relapse to opioid misuse by blocking the effects of opioids, may be prescribed once a patient has fully withdrawn .
  • Following formal treatment, many people benefit from continuing care, sometimes called aftercare. This may include moving to a sober-living facility, attending regular 12-step or other mutual support meetings, participating in individual or group therapy sessions, or using online tools such as a digital alumni program app.

Detoxing from Prescription Opioids

Medical detoxification can make the process of withdrawing from prescription opioids safer and more comfortable.15 Common withdrawal symptoms include:15, 20

  • Irritability and anxiety.
  • Muscle pains.
  • Fatigue.
  • Insomnia.
  • Abdominal pain.
  • Rapid breathing or pulse.
  • Hypertension.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Nausea and vomiting.

Medications can be used to reduce the number of symptoms experienced or to ease symptoms. These medications include opioid agonists like methadone or buprenorphine, which are also commonly used in long-term maintenance treatment, as well as clonidine and lofexidine—drugs that are also used to treat hypertension.15, 21

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, one of the principles of effective treatment is that detoxification should facilitate a patient’s transition into a drug rehabilitation program after detox ends. Research shows that this increases a patient’s likelihood of achieving long-term abstinence.15

Addiction Recovery at Sunrise House Treatment Center

sunrise house full imageSunrise House offers a full continuum of care for many different types of addiction, including prescription opioids. Plus, most insurance plans cover rehab in some capacity. You can expect compassion and expertise as you go through safe medical detox, inpatient and/or outpatient treatment, and aftercare planning.

If you believe you or a loved one is ready for treatment, our Admission Navigators are standing by at . You can also learn more about our rehab facility in New Jersey, Sunrise House, and treatment below.

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