Opioid Addiction Treatment
Repeated use, misuse, and abuse of opioids changes the function and structure of the brain, and actually alters its ability to naturally create endorphins and dopamine on its own.
What are Opioids?
Opioids are a class of medications that attach to opioid receptors in the brain and reduce pain by flooding specific regions of the body with dopamine, a neurochemical associated with pleasure and pain relief.
The term “opiate” derives from the naturally occurring opium poppy, a plant that produces a milky-sap used to make illicit drugs like opium and heroin.
Pharmaceutical opioids are either partially or completely synthetic.
Some of the most common prescription opioids include:
- Fentanyl (usually a patch for cancer patients)
While most opioid medications are prescribed for acute or chronic pain, or to anesthetize patients during a surgical procedure, they are also useful in suppressing an illness-related cough and treating diarrhea.
Opiate prescriptions come in liquid form for injection, tablets, capsules, suppositories, syrups, skin patches and even nasal sprays.
Used as prescribed, opioids are a powerful tool for physicians and patients alike, but the downside is that they can be habit forming and lead to dependence, addiction and fatal overdose.
What is Opioid Addiction?
Misuse, abuse, and overprescribing have lead to an opioid epidemic in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that an average of 130 people a day die from opioid overdose.
Both prescription opioids and illegal opioids, like heroin, are highly addictive and flood the body with dopamine and endorphins, which create intense feelings of euphoria and physical pleasure.
The body, however, quickly develops a tolerance to opioids and users have to take higher and higher doses of the drug to get the same feelings of pleasure, euphoria, or in the case of pain treatment, relief.
Repeated use, misuse, and abuse of these drugs changes the function and structure of the brain, and actually alters its ability to naturally create endorphins and dopamine on its own.
The resulting chemical imbalance becomes a physical addiction, in which the brain and body both need opioids to avoid feeling incredibly sick.
The amount of time it takes a person to develop an opioid addiction varies from person to person. It can depend on whether or not they’re using the medication as prescribed, misusing them, or taking illicit opioids.
Once a person notices they have a tolerance to the drug and they need to take more to produce the desired effect, it is generally a sign that opioid dependence has already started to develop, and addiction might not be far behind.
A principle driver behind the opioid epidemic is how difficult it is to quit taking the drugs after dependence and addiction have taken hold, because of the very painful condition of opioid withdrawal symptoms.
Opioid Withdrawal Symptoms
Attempting to stop taking opioids once a physical addiction has developed, is not recommended for most patients. According to the Mayo Clinic, the best course of action is to create a “withdrawal plan” with an experienced addiction doctor to safely taper off the medications and control the side effects of withdrawal.
Quitting opioids all at once – “cold turkey” – is likely to increase the side effects of opioid withdrawal, which can include painful and dangerous symptoms, such as some of the following:
- Increased pain
- Blood pressure issues
- Rapid heart rate
- Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
- Trouble sleeping or persistent drowsiness
- Sweating, fevers or tremors
- Anxiety, restlessness or confusion
Going into opioid withdrawal is particularly dangerous, even more so when a person with an opioid addiction tries to self-medicate, with other drugs, alcohol or more opioids, to alleviate the painful withdrawal symptoms. This increases the chances of an opioid overdose.
Drugs like heroin, and even prescription opioids such as Vicodin or oxycodone, are central nervous system depressants. Too much, especially in a person whose tolerance to opioids is no longer what it used to be, can suppress the cardiovascular system, causing cardiac arrest and death.
Many fatal overdoses occur in patients and users who relapse on opioids and take a dosage they no longer have the physical tolerance to maintain.
This is why safely tapering and detoxing from opioid addiction is essential. The safest and most effective way to detox from opioids is in a managed facility equipped for opioid addiction detox.
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Treatment for Opioid Addiction
A safe and effective detox from heroin or prescription opioids usually lasts approximately seven days and there are medications that can ease the discomfort of withdrawal symptoms during that time.
One of the most effective ways for people who have successfully detoxed from opioids to continue their treatment is to be admitted to an inpatient, residential treatment program for anywhere from 30 to 90 days. Research suggests, though, the longer the stay, the better the recovery outcome.
“The best-known residential treatment model is the therapeutic community (TC) with planned lengths of stay between 6 and 12 months,” reports the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Treatment may include medication-assisted treatment using maintenance medications, such as buprenorphine (Suboxone) that have proven to counteract the powerful relapse cravings that many people have difficulty overcoming during recovery.
Methadone is also effective for overcoming cravings, but it is only available from specialized Methadone clinics and not available at residential treatment centers. While Methadone can be effective, Suboxone often has fewer side effects, and it’s important that the initial steps of recovery take place in a residential treatment facility.
In addition to medication-assisted treatment, it’s important to look for treatment centers that offer individualized therapies such as one on one counseling, Motivational Enhancement Therapy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
These therapies help to work on overcoming the root causes of addiction and offer tools and techniques that can be used long after leaving a formal treatment center to prevent relapse.
For many people, it’s also important to seek help from a treatment center that specializes in dual diagnosis or co-occurring disorders of addiction combined with mental health issues such as bipolar, depression, PTSD and others.
Often times, these mental health issues are intertwined with addiction, and both issues need to be treated at the same time for recovery to be successful.
How We Can Help
It can be difficult to find a treatment center that offers the best fit for a person with opioid addiction. There are many things to consider such as detox, treatment, aftercare, and the need for dual diagnosis options.