Opioids include illegal drugs, such as heroin; prescription pain relievers, such as hydrocodone (Vicodin), oxycodone (OxyContin, Percocet), morphine (Kadian, Avinza), and codeine; and synthetic opioids like fentanyl. Opioids are available in the form of pills that can be taken orally or can be crushed to form powder, which can be made into a liquid for intravenous use. They are also available in powder form.
Usually prescribed for moderate to severe pain, opioids are a type of narcotic medication that can lead to dependence when taken beyond the prescribed dose and duration. They are relatively safe when taken for a short period of time, but their ability to reduce pain and generate euphoria makes the users susceptible to misuse. Opioids work by binding themselves to opioid receptors in the brain, spinal cord and other parts of the body. They reduce the intensity of pain signals and affect the emotional centers of the brain. In addition to causing sedation and relaxation, their long-term use causes constipation, slurred speech, confusion, and more. Respiratory depression is among the most dangerous results of opioid abuse leading to death in the worst cases.
Owing to their addictive nature, patients may experience painful withdrawal symptoms and are more prone to relapse. For this reason, opioid treatment programs should not only focus on treating the physical symptoms, but also work toward bringing behavioral changes. A comprehensive treatment for opioid addiction involves medically assisted detox program, medication and counseling sessions.
Prescription opioid abuse
The high prescription rate of opioids is one of the factors behind the opioid epidemic, which has now become a public health emergency in the United States. Prescription opioid abuse has resulted in an increase in emergency room (ER) visits, increase in hospitalizations and an increase in overdose deaths. In 2016, an estimated 11.8 million Americans, aged 12-17 years, misused opioids whereas, 948,000 used heroin and 11.5 million people misused pain prescriptions in the past year. Among those who misused pain relievers in the past year, 62.3 percent abused them to relieve physical pain and about 50 percent agreed to have obtained the drugs from a friend or relative.
Apart from their physical side effects, opioids also cause a hedonic effect, when the brain’s complex reward system is affected. This is a major cause of dependence and addiction. Individuals addicted to opioids compulsively find ways to procure opioid painkillers and exhibit behavior that lead to negative consequences in their personal and professional lives. This necessitates opioid addiction treatment using holistic recovery programs.