Recognizing Opioid Use Disorder and What to Do About it

Opioid use disorder is more commonly known as opioid addiction. Currently, 16 million people worldwide are affected by opioid use disorder, and 2.1 million Americans experience it. Read on to recognize the symptoms of opioid addiction, and learn about the treatment that involves medication and therapy.

Key takeaways:

What are opioids?

Opioids, also known as opiates, are made from opium to become a powerful narcotic. Opium comes from the opium poppy, which is a naturally growing flower. Most pharmaceutical opioids are now synthetically created in a lab. Doctors commonly prescribe opioids to treat pain associated with illness, chronic disease, injury, and more.

Opioids block pain signals causing a reduction in pain levels in short-term use. Over time, the effectiveness reduces with continuous use of opiates leading to an elevated tolerance. The elevated tolerance causes people to need a higher dose to help with the pain, leading to the medication becoming less and less effective.

Commonly prescribed opioids include:

DrugBrand name
MorphineDuraMorph
FentanylFentora
HydromorphoneDilaudid
OxycodoneOxyContin
HydrocodoneZohydro
TramadolUltram
MethadoneMethadose
MeperidineDemerol

These medications can be combined with others, such as Tylenol or Advil, to enhance pain relief. Such as Hydrocodone-Acetaminophen (Vicodin) and Oxycodone-Acetaminophen (Percocet). These combination medications still have the same risk of developing an addiction as the others.

Illicit drugs such as heroin can cause an even greater risk of addiction when used. Heroin is another opioid medication but is considered an illegal substance in 49 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. This drug can be injected, smoked, or snorted into the nose. It is regarded as a highly addictive and dangerous substance.

What is opioid use disorder?

Opioid use disorder develops when there is a misuse or overuse of medications or illicit substances that contain opiates. The use of opioids stimulates pain relief, a feeling of euphoria and lethargy people refer to as “being high.” Opioid use disorder can develop with medications prescribed by a doctor, or illegal use, such as heroin.

Opioid use disorder is considered a medical illness characterized by the compulsive use of opioids leading to addiction and the negative impact on one's mental, emotional, and physical well-being. People with opioid use disorder may struggle to keep from using despite its harmful effects.

Opioid addiction is a form of substance abuse disorder that leads to addictive-type symptoms, both physical and mental. Why opioid dependency affects some people more than others is currently unknown, but it may be attributed to lifestyle, family history, and environmental factors.

Opioid addiction symptoms

When someone develops an opioid use disorder, they may start to portray particular personality and behavioral characteristics that are different from usual. They may also present with physical changes that are typical of opioid use. With the common household use of prescription opiates, some people may fail to recognize that they have developed an addiction.

Behavioral signs

Watch for these behavioral changes:

  • Increased agitation.
  • Mood swings or changes.
  • Changes in sleep patterns.
  • Withdrawing or avoiding friends and family.
  • Missing work and important events.
  • Struggling to fulfill responsibilities.
  • Taking more of the opioid medication than prescribed.
  • Borrowing other people’s prescription medication.
  • Unable to decrease or stop the use of opioid medication.
  • Experiencing cravings for the medication.

Physical changes

Watch for these physical changes:

  • Confusion
  • Sleepiness
  • Euphoria
  • Slow speech
  • Pinpoint pupils
  • Decreased heart rate
  • Decreased or shallow breathing

Opioid addiction – treatment options:

Opioid use disorder features addiction as a symptom that can present challenges to treat as it can lead to relapsing. Treatment usually involves medication to wean off the opiate and therapy. Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) uses medication and behavioral therapies to treat opioid use disorder.

Therapy for opioid use disorder

Inpatient and outpatient therapy clinicals are available to people suffering from a misuse or dependency disorder. Specialized addiction treatment centers focus on opiates, both prescription and illicit, to provide support for the individual.

Opioid use disorder often presents with periods of sobriety and relapses during treatment. However, the longer the sobriety, the smaller the chance to relapse over time. The vulnerability of relapsing may never disappear, even after ten years or more of sobriety.

The goal of therapy for people with opioid use disorder is to prevent relapsing by teaching a change in thinking patterns and behaviors. This type of therapy is called cognitive behavioral therapy.

12-step group therapy programs such as Narcotics Anonymous have also been helpful to individuals with opioid use disorder. These programs involve group therapy, a sponsor to speak with, and a supportive network of friends and family. Therapists who work for places such as Narcotics Anonymous are trained counselors to support recovery needs.

Medication for opioid use disorder

Medications are available to help wean those with opioid use disorder off opiates safely. They can help to reduce cravings and minimize withdrawal symptoms while detoxifying from opiates.

Common medications include:

DrugBrand name
MethadoneMethadose
BuprenorphineBelbuca
NaltrexoneVivitrol

There are free methadone clinics in the United States to assist with the opioid pandemic. The methadone must be given during one of the facility's opioid treatment programs overseen by a medical provider. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) must also certify these clinics.

Withdrawal treatment for opioid use disorder

One of the first steps in treating opioid use disorder is detoxifying the opiates from the system. Detoxifying should be done under a healthcare professional's supervision and in combination with medication and therapy. Going through withdrawals by yourself can be dangerous and lead to death.

Opiate withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Agitation
  • Chills
  • Sweats
  • Anxiety
  • Muscle aches
  • Insomnia
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Abdominal cramping

Opiate withdrawal symptoms can become more severe over 72 hours before reducing. People who use opiates chronically risk developing opioid withdrawal syndrome, which is life-threatening and can lead to death. With the help of medical professionals, medication can be used to ensure this is done safely.

Opioid addiction – where to find help?

If you are a loved one is suffering from opioid use disorder, there are resources to turn to for help. Recovery is hard to do alone and makes the chances of relapsing higher. Every recovery journey is different and can affect the person with opioid use disorder and their family members.

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has created effective strategies to assist in recognizing and treating patients in health care while collaborating with public safety. They provide tools and handouts to use along with hotlines to provide support.

SAMHSA focuses on recovery and recovery support for people with opioid use disorder. They provide resources for different cultural needs and help for people who speak non-English languages. They focus on helping during the prevention and treatment of behavioral health needs.

Al-Anon is a foundation that focuses on the support of family and friends of people who have opioid use disorder. They provide meetings and support groups worldwide to assist with emotional support before, during, and after recovery.

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