Drug Addiction and Recovery: Opioids

Guest Blogger: Jenna

imageWhat are Opioid Drugs?

Opioid drugs are either naturally-derived from the poppy plant, such as heroin, morphine, and opium, or synthetic, such as oxycontin, oxymorphone and hydromorphone. Heroin, morphine and opium are illegal, while oxycontin, oxymorphone and hydromorphone are legal with a prescription, but heavily regulated.

Although the National Institute on Drug Abuse indicates that heroin usage has remained fairly steady, as of 2011, illicit drug usage, including prescription opioids, is on the rise in Michigan and the rest of the United States. Illicit drug use is highest among individuals in their late teens through late twenties. The National Institute on Drug abuse also reports marked increases in illicit drug usage among individuals in their fifties.

How Opiate Drugs Work

Your brain is composed mainly of nervous tissue. This tissue responds to chemicals called neurotransmitters, which have a variety of functions from controlling your mood, to helping your brain regulate hormone levels. Each neurotransmitter has its own unique shape, and specific neurons in the brain have receptors that match the shape of specific neurotransmitters. When the neurotransmitters sit inside their target receptors, it activates the neuron to perform the required function.

One type of neurotransmitter is a substance called endorphin, a natural pain killer that your body releases in times of stress.

When endorphin sits on the receptor, it produces a slight euphoria and reduces sensitivity to pain. Opioid drugs have the same shape as the endorphin neurotransmitter, and fit easily into the endorphin receptors in the brain.

When a person takes an opiate, it produces the same euphoria as endorphin, only much stronger, followed by a warm, relaxed feeling. Opioids are also central nervous system depressants; they slow breathing, relax muscles, and lower blood pressure, causing alternating periods of drowsiness and wakefulness. In cases of overdose, a person could stop breathing or go into cardiac arrest.

Opiate Addiction:

Opioids are several times stronger than your body’s naturally-occurring endorphin, which is why they cause such an intense initial high. However, the drug’s high potency also causes an interesting phenomenon  — in an effort to protect itself from a chemical overload, your brain actually reduces the number of endorphin receptors. Additionally, because these drugs so closely resemble natural endorphin, as long as you continue to use your body
will stop making its own endorphin.

The combination of the reduced number of receptors and the body no longer making endorphin is what creates the dependency and addiction. Often addicts no longer achieve the same high, and have to take the drugs several times a day, at very high doses, just to prevent withdrawal.

Opiate Withdrawal:

Addicts will experience a variety of symptoms when withdrawing from opioid drugs. Because the addict no longer makes his own endorphin, the early symptoms of withdrawal include anxiety, muscle aches and increased sensitivity to pain. If the addict continues to go without, he will also experience insomnia and sweating as well as abdominal cramps with diarrhea, nausea and vomiting. For some addicts the withdrawal symptoms are so severe that they rarely stop using cold turkey. Many addicts use inpatient, or outpatient drug rehabilitation programs to get clean.

Treatment Options

The most common way to treat opioid addiction is with drugs that resemble the body’s natural endorphins, called opioid blockers. The purpose is to relieve the withdrawal symptoms without the narcotic effects. Over time, the patient takes progressively smaller doses until the body starts making its own endorphins again, and the addict is no longer dependent on the drug.

Methadone, which has been used as an opiod blocker for over 30 years remains a common aid in recovery. Whether you are seeking the best Drug Rehabilitation Michigan facility or anywhere else in the US, use of methadone is a common practice.

In recent years, buprenorphine and naltrexone were also introduced as alternative therapies. Buprenorphine is considered more effective that methadone, because it produces fewer withdrawal symptoms when patients discontinue the therapy. However, some individuals do not respond well to buprenorphine and still need to use methadone.

Naltrexone, while effective, tends to have low patient compliance. This is due in part to the fact that patients must first fully detox from heroin starting this therapy. With Methadone and buprenorphine, patients can begin therapy even if they have recently used heroin. Naltrexone is generally used in clinical/inpatient settings where a patient can safely detox and go through the initial stages of withdrawal before starting the Naltrexone program.

A fourth drug, naloxone, is a fast-acting opioid blocker that helps “push” opiods off the cell receptors. It is primarily used to treat overdoses.  For more on diagnosing and treating drug addiction, read on here.



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