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Opioid Addiction and Abuse

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Opioid Addiction and Abuse

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Opioid addiction is a long-lasting or chronic condition with major health, social, and economic problems. The below article details the same.

Written by

Dr. Ajay Singh

Medically reviewed by

Dr. K. Shobana

Published At October 14, 2017
Reviewed AtMarch 18, 2024

What Are Opioids?

Opioids belong to a class of medications that work by reducing the number of pain signals the body sends to the brain. They also change the brain's response to pain and produce feelings of pleasure and pain relief. They are the derivatives of the plant Papaver somniferum, commonly known as the poppy husk. Opioids are taken orally or by inhalation, intravenous, intramuscular, and subcutaneous routes. Healthcare professionals often prescribe opioids to manage moderate to severe pain. The commonly prescribed opioids are Opium, Oxycodone, Codeine, Fentanyl, Buprenorphine, Methadone, Oxymorphone, Morphine, Tramadol, and Hydrocodone. Some opioids, like Heroin, are illegal drugs with a tendency of abuse. When used correctly, opioids are safe. But when a person takes opioids for a long time, it can lead to drug abuse, dependence, and addiction.

What Are the Uses of Opioids?

These medications manage pain well and can help boost the quality of life. Opioids are widely prescribed to treat many issues, like toothaches and dental procedures, injuries, surgeries, and chronic conditions such as cancer.

What Is Opioid Addiction?

Opioid addiction refers to a powerful and compulsive urge to use opioids even when they are no longer required medically. Opioid drugs can even cause addiction in some people when the drugs are appropriately prescribed and taken as instructed. People who become addicted to opioids can prioritize getting and using these drugs over other activities in their lives, often negatively affecting their professional and personal relationships and resulting in poor quality of life.

What Causes Opioid Addiction?

Opioids alter the brain by forming artificial endorphins. Besides stopping pain, these endorphins also make you feel good. Unfortunately, excessive opioid use can cause the brain to rely on these artificial endorphins. Once the brain does this, it can stop creating its own endorphins. Opioids change the brain's chemistry and lead to drug tolerance, due to which, over time, the dose needs to be increased to attain the same effect. In addition, taking opioids for a long time produces dependence. When people stop taking this drug, they experience withdrawal symptoms like diarrhea, muscle cramping, anxiety, sweating, nausea or vomiting, chills, shaking, pain, depression, and insomnia.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Opioid Addiction?

Opioid addiction is also known as substance abuse. One clear sign of opioid addiction is an inability to stop using opioids. The other common signs and symptoms of opioid abuse include

  • Shallow or slow breathing rate.

  • Physical agitation.

  • Poor decision-making.

  • Abandoning responsibilities.

  • Mood swings.

  • Irritability.

  • Depression.

  • Lowered motivation.

  • Anxiety attacks.

  • Uncontrollable cravings.

  • Drowsiness.

  • Changes in sleep habits.

  • Weight loss.

  • Flu-like symptoms.

  • Reduced libido.

  • Lack of hygiene.

  • Changes in exercise habits.

  • Isolation from family or friends.

  • Stealing from family, friends, or businesses.

  • Financial difficulties.

What Are the Main Risk Factors for Opioid Addiction?

Several genetic, psychological, and environmental factors contribute to opioid addiction, which can happen quickly or after many years of opioid use.

The known risk factors for opioid addiction and include:

  • Poverty.

  • Unemployment.

  • Family history of substance abuse.

  • Personal history of substance abuse.

  • Young age.

  • History of criminal activity or legal problems.

  • Prolonged contact with high-risk people or high-risk environments.

  • Issues with family members and friends.

  • Peer pressure.

  • Heavy tobacco use.

  • History of severe depression or anxiety.

  • Stressful circumstances.

  • Prior drug or alcohol rehabilitation.

In addition, women have a particular set of risk factors for opioid addiction. For example, women are more likely to have chronic pain than men. They are also more often prescribed opioid medications, given higher doses, and use opioids for extended periods.

How Is Opioid Addiction Diagnosed?

The medical health professional can diagnose opioid use disorder and opioid addiction by a medical assessment. It also often includes testing to rule out mental health disorders. A person struggling with opioid addiction may not display symptoms right away. However, there may be some signs that they need help over time.

What Is the Treatment for Opioid Addiction and Abuse?

Opioid addiction is a serious and chronic problem and should be treated and continually managed and monitored like other chronic conditions. Opioid addiction treatment is different for each person. The main goal of therapy aims to stop using opioid drugs. Treatment can also help avoid using these drugs again in the future. The treatment modalities for opioid addiction include:

1. Pharmacological Treatment: The pharmacological treatment includes two phases, the detoxification phase, and the maintenance phase.

  • Detoxification Phase: It consists of flushing out opioids from the body under the cover of prescribed medications to counter the withdrawal phenomenon.

  • Maintenance Phase: It includes keeping the person abstinent from opioid use by using either opioid agonists, like Buprenorphine or opioid antagonists, such as Naltrexone.

2. Non Pharmacological Treatment: In addition to pharmacological treatment, mental or emotional support is also necessary to manage opioid addiction. The non pharmacological methods are combined with pharmacological treatment to improve the therapeutic regime.

These treatments also help a person with opioid addiction avoid opioids, deal with cravings, and heal damaged relationships. It comprises therapies, including:

  • Motivation level assessment.

  • Motivation enhancement therapy.

  • Individual counseling.

  • Family counseling.

  • Group therapy.

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy.

  • Relapse prevention management.

How Can You Avoid Addiction to Opioids?

Opioids are safe when used for fewer days to manage acute pain, such as pain after surgery or a bone fracture. Work with a doctor to take the lowest dose possible for acute pain. However, opioids are not likely to be a safe and effective long-term treatment option for chronic pain. Many alternate treatment options are available, like less addictive pain medications and non-pharmacological therapies. If a loved one is considering taking opioids to manage pain. In that case, it is vital to consult a physician, anesthesiologist, or other pain medicine specialist about using them safely and exploring alternative options if needed. Learn from a physician or anesthesiologist to use opioids more wisely and safely and explore what pain management alternatives may work for you.

Does Opioid Addiction Management Work?

Treatment for opioid addiction can work and it depends on the person and the level of addiction. The presence of other conditions such as alcohol consumption and mental illness such as depression or stress can complicate the recovery. It is better to treat a person for mental health and substance use disorders as both occur together in many situations. The affected person’s environment and help and support from family play a major role.


Opioids are drugs that a doctor often prescribed to help reduce pain. These drugs usually are safe when taken for a short time and as prescribed by a doctor. When used correctly, opioids are safe. But when used for a long time, it can lead to drug abuse, dependence, and addiction. Treatment for opioid addiction and abuse is given by medical professionals. Medications such as Methadone, Buprenorphine, or Naltrexone combined with behavioral therapy can help people recover.

Frequently Asked Questions


What Are the Three Common Effects of the Opioid Crisis?

The opioid crisis is the overuse or misuse of opioids. The common side effects of opioids include - 
- Drowsiness.
- Dizziness.
- Nausea and vomiting.


How Addiction Develops in the Brain?

The brain also changes when a person develops an addiction to a specific substance, as the addictive substance creates an exaggerated response when they reach the brain. And that creates a reward pathway in the brain, making people think that they will get a reward while abusing this drug.


How Does a Person Feels After Having a Drug Addiction?

An addiction to a drug directly affects the brain of the person, which seize the pleasure or reward circuits of the brain and makes the person want more. Addiction can also cause the person to feel anxious and stressed when they stop taking drugs.


What Are the Stages of Addiction?

There are six stages of drugs which include -
Stage 1 - Introduction to drugs.
Stage 2 - Experimentation.
Stage 3 - Regular usage.
Stage 4 - Problem use.
Stage 5 - Drug dependence.
Stage 6 - Drug dependency.


What Are the Effects of Opioids on Behavior?

All the drugs directly affect the brain, which can cause certain behavior changes such as relaxation and euphoria (happiness). However, it can also cause reduced pain, suppressed breathing, drowsiness, confusion, nausea, and constipation.


What Are the Risk Factors of Opioid Usage?

Risk factors for opioid misuse include -
- Past or current substance abuse.
- Untreated psychiatric disorders.
- Younger age.
- Social or family environments that encourage misuse.


What Are the Types of Opioids?

Opioids are a group of pain-relieving drugs that work by acting on the opioid receptors in the cells of the body. Opioids can be made from the poppy plant, for example, morphine and other lab-made synthetic opioids include - heroin, codeine, oxycodone, hydrocodone, and fentanyl.


How Can the Brain Recover From Addiction?

The human brain has an incredible ability to repair and regenerate after prolonged addiction. When the brain cells get damaged, the brain continues to build brain cells and neural pathways throughout life. In addition, the brain can adapt and change and heal itself. However, the process usually depends upon a few factors, such as -
- The type of substance used.
- For how much, how often, and how long a person has been using the substance.
- Physical and psychological health.
- The method of withdrawal.


How Does Addiction Affects the Life of a Person?

An addiction directly impacts the quality of life. It changes the mind and body of the individual, their personality, and their physical and mental well-being. Their relationship with their family and friends got disturbed, and their professional and public lives were also affected.


Who Is at Risk of Opioid Addiction?

People affected with certain healthcare conditions are at higher risk of complications from opioid addiction, which include - 
- Older adults (65 years and older).
- Respiratory conditions such as sleep apnea and asthma.
- Younger adults of age 18 - 25 years.
- Mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety.
- History of alcohol or substance abuse.


What Are the Harmful Effects of Drug Abuse?

Drug abuse is most commonly seen in young age who experience many problems,
which include -
- Academic difficulties. 
- Health-related problems. 
- Poor peer relationships. 
- Involvement with the juvenile justice system.
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Dr. Ajay Singh
Dr. Ajay Singh



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