Opioid Addiction & Treatment

Prescription opioid painkiller abuse is a major public health issue in the United States. While even appropriate use of opioids involves certain side effects and risks, misuse of these drugs may lead to more severe side effects and a greater risk of dependence, addiction, or overdose.1,2 This article will help you understand opioids, their effects, the dangers of overdose, and how you or someone you care about can start the road to recovery from prescription opioid abuse before it’s too late.

What Are Opioids?

Older woman taking pill

Opioids are a class of drugs derived from the opium poppy plant that includes both prescription painkillers and the illegal street drug heroin.

Common prescription opioids include:2

  • Oxycodone (OxyContin, Percocet).
  • Hydrocodone (Norco).
  • Morphine (Duramorph, Kadian).
  • Hydromorphone (Dilaudid).
  • Fentanyl (Duragesic , Actiq, Subsys).
  • Methadone (Methadose).
  • Codeine.
  • Tramadol (Ultram, Conzip).

These drugs act on opioid receptors in the brain to relieve sensations of pain. These drugs can also produce feelings of relaxation and euphoria, especially at high doses, and have a very high addiction potential.2

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 153 million prescriptions for opioid painkillers were written in 2019. The rate of opioid prescriptions has dropped significantly from a decade prior; however, some areas continue to struggle with very high prescribing rates. In 2019, in about 5% of U.S. counties, enough opioid prescriptions were written for each resident to have one.3

Unfortunately, taking any painkiller—even one prescribed to you—can put you at risk for developing an opioid addiction. The CDC estimates that for every 4 people receiving long-term opioid therapy in a primary care setting, at least one person struggles with an opioid addiction.1

 

What Are the Side Effects of Painkillers?

Opioids are effective at reducing pain and at producing other pleasurable feelings, such as relaxation and euphoria. However, the effects are not all positive. Side effects of opioid use include:1,2

  • Drowsiness.
  • Confusion.
  • Nausea.
  • Dry mouth.
  • Vomiting.
  • Constipation.
  • Itching.
  • Sweating.
  • Slowed breathing (which can cause brain damage or death in overdose).
  • Increased sensitivity to pain.
  • Depression.

Some long-term side effects of opioid use include increased potential for falls and fractures, lowered sex drive, fertility problems, severe constipation and bowel obstruction, sleep-disordered breathing, immune system suppression, physical dependence, addiction, and the ongoing risk for overdose. 1,4,

 

Painkiller Overdose

Misuse of opioids has become a significant problem in the U.S., contributing largely to the country’s overdose epidemic.5 In Massachusetts, 88% of all overdose deaths reported in 2018 involved at least one opioid.6

Between May of 2019 and May of 2020, the U.S. saw its highest rate of overdoses in a 12-month period in the country’s history. This historically high number suggests the disruption of daily life associated with the COVID-19 pandemic had a significant negative impact on overdose rates. Illicitly manufactured fentanyl (IMF) is the main substance driving this increase in overdose deaths.7

Fentanyl is a very strong and dangerous synthetic opioid that is 50-100 times more powerful than morphine. While it was originally developed as a powerful prescription drug to treat severe pain and mainly used for advanced cancer pain, it has become a serious problem for people who abuse street drugs or who buy opioid pills illicitly. This is because it is often illegally manufactured and mixed with counterfeit pills, heroin, or other illegal drugs like cocaine to increase their potency and euphoric effects. People who use these substances often do not know what exactly they are taking, and as a result are at significant risk for an opioid overdose.8

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Opioid Overdose?

Opioid overdose symptoms can include:9

  • Pinpoint (tiny) pupils.
  • Loss of consciousness and cannot be awakened.
  • Very slow and shallow breathing.
  • Slowed or absent pulse.
  • Vomiting or gurgling or choking noises.
  • Limp body.
  • Cold, pale skin.
  • Fingernails or lips are purple or blue.

Combining opioids with other substances, like benzodiazepines or alcohol, can increase your risk of overdose and death.10

 

How Do You Treat Opioid Addiction?

The first step in treating an opioid use disorder is going through the withdrawal process. Opioid withdrawal syndrome can be severely uncomfortable. The signs and symptoms of opioid withdrawal can mimic that of the flu and may include sweating, runny nose, nausea, vomiting, racing pulse, and other distressing symptoms.12,13

Because withdrawal symptoms can be unpleasant and upsetting, and having severe cravings can also make it challenging to endure, some users start to take opioids to relieve withdrawal symptoms. Beginning treatment in a medical detox environment can help reduce the likelihood of a return to opioid use.12,14 During medical detox, medical doctors and nurses provide all-day supervision, comfort care, and medications to alleviate withdrawal symptoms as well as drug raving. They can also quickly intervene in case you experience any medical complications. Therapists and psychiatrists are also often on staff to provide support and initiate counseling and other behavioral therapies that will support your long-term recovery.12

The reason detox is the first step—and not the only step—in treatment for opioid use disorder is that it only addresses your body’s physical reliance on opioids but not the other issues that underlie your addiction.15 Treatment staff in a detox program can help you to move into another form of care to address these issues as well as educate you on healthy coping skills once you’re stable enough to do so. 12

Doctor hold patient's hands

Treatment with AdCare

AdCare provides two inpatient locations where patients can begin with detox and move directly into a residential program. For those who prefer outpatient therapy after detox, there are multiple outpatient AdCare locations throughout Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

AdCare locations provide the option of medication-assisted treatment (MAT) for opioid addiction, which means the use of therapy combined with medications. Therapies such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which helps you develop skills to change unhealthy thoughts and behaviors, are used in conjunction with medications like Suboxone or naltrexone to support long-term recovery.16

For questions about how to begin treatment for opioid addiction, call us today at .

 

How do painkillers work?

Opioids work by binding to the opioid receptors in your brain to dull feelings of pain and create feelings of well-being. 17,18 

If a doctor prescribed me opioids, are they safe?

All opioids—even those prescribed to you—have risks, including the potential for abuse and addiction. Taking prescription opioids to relieve pain for a short time is generally safe when taken only as prescribed but it does not eliminate the inherent risks of opioids. If you have concerns about the safety of a drug prescribed to you or have a personal or family history of substance abuse, you can speak with your physician. He or she can discuss with you the risks vs. benefits of prescription painkillers and go over any alternatives for pain relief.17

How long does it take to become dependent on painkillers?

Exactly how long it takes to develop a physiological dependence on opioids varies by individual, but it can happen quickly for some people—within a couple of weeks.19

Can I drink alcohol while taking prescription opioids?

No, alcohol and prescription opioids both slow your breathing, and taking them together can slow it to dangerous levels, potentially resulting in a fatal overdose.10

Can I detox from opioids by myself?

It is possible to detox from opioids alone; however, the withdrawal can be very intense, and many people seek medical support to ease the discomfort and prevent them from returning to opioids for relief. Medication provided in a detox facility by qualified staff can keep you safe and comfortable and help you avoid relapse.12

Which painkillers are safe during pregnancy?

Opioid abuse during pregnancy may result in the baby being born dependent on opioids and going through withdrawal symptoms after birth (known as neonatal abstinence syndrome). If you are currently pregnant and using opioids, do not stop taking them without talking to your doctor because you can put your baby at risk. Speak to your physician about the safest way to end your opioid use.2