Opiates are some of the most powerful, and powerfully addictive, drugs. They have important medical uses. This does not mean they are harmless. The same properties that make them work as painkillers also make them harmful. Understand how opiates work. Learn how and why addiction is a risk. Know that recovery help and hope are available.
What Are Opiates?
Drugs in the opiate class originate from poppy plants. The gooey sap inside the pods of mature flowers can be removed and processed. Resulting products are smoked, eaten, sniffed, or injected. Further refining results in many of the opiates available by prescription. Natural opiates include morphine and codeine. Semi-synthetic products include oxycodone and hydrocodone.
Fully synthetic products are some of the most dangerous and addictive. They can be manufactured to be much stronger than any natural product. Fentanyl is one of several synthetic opiates. Forbes explains, “Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, is 50-100 times more potent than morphine…and 25-50 times more potent than heroin.”1 Fentanyl may work “better” than other opiate drugs, but the risks match or exceed the possible benefits. The more powerful an opiate drug, the more likely side effects like addiction become.
What Do Opiates Do?
Opiate receptors exist throughout the body. The National Institute on Drug Abuse explains, “[Opiates] act by attaching to specific proteins called opioid receptors, which are found on nerve cells in the brain, spinal cord, gastrointestinal tract, and other organs in the body.”2 When opiates attach to these receptors, they change how the brain perceives pain. They produce feelings of pleasure or euphoria. They also slow essential body functions like heart and breath rates. Wanted and unwanted effects are often almost instantaneous. The stronger the opiate, the faster and more powerful the effects.
Why Do People Get Addicted?
The brain records the feelings of pleasure opiate drugs provide. It cues individuals to experience these feelings again by taking more of the drug. When people take an opiate more often or in greater amounts, the drug becomes less effective. The brain wants the pleasurable feelings opiates provide, but it and the body also want balance. They begin to produce fewer natural opiates to combat the over-presence of chemical ones. They become less responsive to opiate drugs. The reward system combines with tolerance to encourage ever-increasing opiate use. Soon individuals don’t just take opiates to feel good. They must take them to avoid feeling bad.
The National Alliance of Advocates for Buprenorphine Treatment explains, “The highs begin with feelings of extreme euphoria and comfort unlike any feeling that can be obtained naturally. In the beginning the lows are just a return to normal…Soon [opiate users] notice the level of euphoria is not as great as it was the first few times…The feelings of euphoria have diminished. Now the opioid only causes feelings of normality not euphoria.”3 When individuals are not on the drug, they begin to feel depressed or anxious. They start to experience withdrawal symptoms such as nausea, aches and pains, tremors or chills. Individuals may not recognize their growing addiction for what it is. They just know they feel good or at least okay when using opiates and feel bad, in pain or uncomfortable when not. They do not recognize how addiction is beginning to impact their health and happiness. They do not see the effects it has on their lives and those around them.
Who Gets Addicted?
Opiates act on the brain and body. Addiction is a disease that develops in response to opiates’ effects. It is not a matter of personality, willpower or weakness. Anyone can become addicted, but nobody wants to. Opiate use often begins with the best intentions. People want to manage physical or mental pain. They may receive a prescription from a medical professional or borrow pills from a friend or family member. This use quickly escalates.
Even if opiate use involves a prescription, it is dangerous. Opiate use puts health at risk. Overdose rates have reached epidemic levels. The Centers for Disease Control reports, “In 2015, drug overdoses accounted for 52,404 deaths in the United States, 63.1% of which involved an opioid. Among opioid-related deaths, approximately 15,000 (approximately half) involved a prescription opioid.
In addition, an estimated 2.0 million persons in the United States had opioid use disorder (addiction) associated with prescription opioids in 2015.”4 Opiate addiction is a common story. Opiate overdose is a common result. It doesn’t have to be. Addiction is a serious situation, but there are many reasons to have hope. The number of effective, available treatments is increasing. Stigma is beginning to decrease. You can access immediate, appropriate care for yourself or an addicted loved one. Recovery professionals help people address addiction. They help people develop skills and strengths for sobriety.
If someone you love is abusing opioids, we’d like to help start your family on the road to recovery. Reach out to Black Bear Lodge. We can help you understand addiction and your options. Our evidence-based therapies offer real hope for recovery. Please call. We have so much to share with you. We want to, and can, help.
1 Walton, Alice. “Why Fentanyl Is So Much More Deadly Than Heroin.” Forbes. 9 Apr. 2016. Accessed 8 Aug. 2017.
2 Volkow, Nora. “America’s Addiction to Opioids.” National Institute on Drug Abuse. 14 May 2014. Accessed 8 Aug. 2017.
3 The National Alliance of Advocates for Buprenorphine Treatment. “What It Is Like to Be Addicted.” Accessed 8 Aug. 2017.
4 Guy, GP; Zhang, K; Bohm, MK. “Vital Signs: Changes in Opioid Prescribing in the United States, 2006–2015.” Centers for Disease Control. 7 Jul. 2017. Accessed 8 Aug. 2017.