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Treatment Options for Opiate Addiction


You’ve seen the headlines. You’ve heard the politicians and pundits. There’s an opiate epidemic, and people across the US are affected. It is a fact that since 1999, the rate at which drugs like Vicodin, Percocet, Oxycontin, and other opiates are prescribed has quadrupled. As many as 2.1 million Americans are dealing with some form of opiate dependence, and many more are struggling with illicit drugs like heroin because of their exposure to the pharmaceutical strain of opium-based drugs.

If you’re one of the millions of people struggling with opiate abuse, the first thing you should realize is you’re not alone. The next thing you should think about and really take to heart is that addiction is not a moral failing. The old image of the evil junky needs to be buried for good because addiction is a medical problem and not a spiritual one.

The powerful drugs we call opiates have profound and lasting effects on your brain chemistry and your body’s systems. Even short-term use can result in imbalances of serotonin and dopamine, key compounds in your nervous system that regulate everything from motivation to digestion. You can beat addiction, but it is important to understand what you’re fighting.


What Are Opiates?

Opiates are a broad family of drugs that all share their origin in the opium poppy. People have been using these quite amazing flowers for as long as they’ve been growing plants (that is a very long time). The earliest evidence of poppy cultivation can be seen in archeological sites from ancient Persia and Egypt. The ancient Greeks wrote about it in poetry. Around the world, cultures have used the poppy because it is actually a good medicine. In more recent times, we have synthesized multiple different drugs from the milky sap found in poppy flowers, starting with the original opiate painkiller, opium, and leading all the way to the more recent killer, fentanyl.


Here are a few common opiates:

Morphine: Morphine is one of the oldest opiates and is still one of the most commonly used. It usually appears in hospitals after surgery or when a patient has experienced serious physical trauma. It is administered intravenously, in pill form, and has fast and slow-acting versions. Like all opiate drugs, it has the potential to be habit-forming.

Codeine: This narcotic is used as a cough suppressant and to treat pain. It is often used in cases where people have severe infections in the lungs. When it’s used recreationally, it is often mixed with alcohol which enhances the euphoric effect that all opiates share. However, it causes immediate and often critical damage to the liver.

Heroin: Heroin is the most common illicit opiate. It is derived from morphine and was originally intended to treat morphine addicts. It is cheap and fairly easy to produce. This is why as more and more people have become dependent on prescription opiates, many turn to heroin abuse as a cheaper option. It can be snorted, smoked, or injected.

As we’ve just mentioned, opiates are at the center of the recent rise in chemical dependence and the epidemic levels of opioid overdose in the US.   


How Opiates Work

It’s important to reiterate here that opiate addiction is not a moral or mental failing, but a chronic medical condition. The actions of these powerful drugs create serious imbalances in your brain’s chemistry. Because of this imbalance, the cycle of opiate detox and relapse is often a long and arduous one, but it is possible to get clean.

Opiates work by highjacking your body’s relay system for signaling pain. Special nerve cells called receptors exist all across your body, especially in places like your skin, your joints, and the walls of your internal organs. When one of these receptors detect something unpleasant or potentially damaging, it sends an electric pulse to your brain that we interpret as pain.

Your nervous system has special chemical messengers in it called endorphins which help regulate pain signals from your receptors. These chemicals happen to have the exact structure that the alkaloids found in poppy sap have, meaning the drugs created from those alkaloids have free reign to interfere with your nerves’ receptors. This translates to opiates overloading the receptors located in your brain, your brain stem, and spinal column, stopping the transmission of pain signals and starting a rush of an endorphin called dopamine. Dopamine is the feel-good chemical. It’s what makes you feel high.

The dopamine rush created by opiates is intense and euphoric as anyone who’s used them will tell you, but your brain can’t always be tricked. It detects this rush of dopamine caused by the opiates in your system as abnormal and changes the way it receives messages from dopamine afterward. That’s how tolerance develops.

As an opiate floods your system with dopamine, your brain adjusts, so it takes more and more of the original drug to feel the same effect. As tolerance grows, so does physical dependence as your brain chemistry is thrown into chaos from the constant flood of dopamine. After a long period of use suddenly stops, the resultant crash is called withdrawal.


Symptoms of opiate withdrawal include:

  •    Diarrhea
  •    Cravings
  •    Abdominal cramps
  •    Chills
  •    Nausea and vomiting
  •    Body aches
  •    Hallucinations
  •    Severe anxiety and negative mood swings

The pain, discomfort, and feeling of a loss of control often lead to the repeated relapse of those suffering from opiate dependence.


Opiate Addiction and Treatment

Opiate addiction and dependence go hand in hand, but they are not the same thing. As said before, dependence is the tolerance you develop of long-term use and the withdrawal you experience after stopping the drug. Addiction is a behavioral disorder that refers to the desire you feel for the effects of the drug and the loss of control over your life that you might experience in your quest to obtain it.

In a lot of ways, the effects of opiates on your brain is a lot like a highjacking. Your body loses its ability to function on its own as the external force of the drugs act on the internal mechanisms of its systems. Once a person is addicted to opiates and tries to quit, there is as much as a 90% chance of them relapsing at some point, with many people not making it a week. These numbers aren’t meant to discourage, but to show that painkiller addiction is a serious illness and should be approached with any and all resources at your disposal.

So, you’ve decided to quit. What’s your first step? First, deciding how you’re going to deal with withdrawal will be your immediate challenge. Withdrawal physical symptoms can last days or weeks, so you need a plan. One method for dealing with this first stage is pharmacotherapy, or the use of medicine to help you through withdrawal. You’ll need to visit your doctor or check into a rehab clinic to get a prescription, but some people find success using this method. Some examples of medications for opioid withdrawal are:

Methadone: A long-acting opiate drug. It is an opiate like the others we’ve mentioned, so it activates the same receptors in your brain and stops withdrawal symptoms. What it doesn’t do is create the euphoria that the others do. With methadone, you’re slowly given smaller and smaller doses until you have worked through your dependence.

Buprenorphine and Naloxone:  Buprenorphine is a newer opiate intended, like methadone, to stop withdrawal symptoms and cravings. Naloxone is used in conjunction to prevent misuse of buprenorphine.

Naltrexone: This drug blocks opiate receptors, so although it doesn’t stop cravings or withdrawal symptoms like methadone does, it prevents you from getting high. Doctors recommend this be taken in conjunction with other drugs as part of a longer-term maintenance therapy.


Tips For Opiate Addiction Treatment

Seek help from opiate addiction with your friends and family. We want you to know you’re not alone. Millions have faced the same problem you’re currently facing. Often there is shame involved with ‘getting help’ as there’s a stigma attached to drug addiction that has been around for quite some time. It is vital that you not only come clean with yourself but with your friends and family. It is those closest to you that will support and help you through this hard time.

Find a treatment center that works. Getting help with opiate addiction is a large enough problem that there is an industry behind helping those struggling. Addiction treatment centers and rehabilitation programs are proven to be successful, and they unite addicts all victim to the same struggle.

Pharmacotherapy, especially the old standby methadone, has been shown to be an effective treatment options for opiate addiction, but after the initial phase, the physical withdrawal is over, and you may find that your emotional and mental health need continued support. Experts say psychological and social factors are the number one contributing factor to relapse in opiate addicts. Many doctors recommend maintenance therapy, or the continued use of low doses of drugs like methadone to fight cravings and relieve social stressors that might lead to relapse.

If you’re looking for a less medicated option, then there are other options as well. Cognitive behavioral therapy in the form of group or individual sessions has helped some people to overcome their substance abuse and drug-seeking behaviors. Groups like Narcotics Anonymous offer structured programs to overcome the lasting psychological and social pressures of overcoming addiction.  

There is some debate over the effectiveness of this sort of “12 Step” program, but it may help you to find a group of people who are dealing with the same struggle as you are to work through your addiction and dependence. The added benefit of groups like NA is that they are present all over the country and in all major cities. It’s a network of support you can always access on your journey.

The challenges faced by a person with an opioid addiction are daunting, but not insurmountable. If you need to get help for your own opiate addiction or need to help an opiate addict, Luminance Recovery is here to help. Our holistic approach to treatment has helped many people overcome opiate addiction. Call us today to learn about our opiate addiction treatment options.

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