Opioids

What Are Opioids?

Opioids, sometimes called narcotics, are medications prescribed by doctors to treat persistent or severe pain. They are used by people with chronic headaches and backaches, by patients recovering from surgery or experiencing severe pain associated with cancer, and by adults and children who have gotten hurt playing sports or who have been seriously injured in falls, auto accidents or other incidents.

Opioids are a class of drug that includes both prescription pain medicines and illegal drugs such as heroin. Though opioids can be prescribed by a doctor to treat pain, their misuse may lead to a dependency or addiction (what is known in medicine as an “opioid use disorder”). Anyone prescribed an opioid should follow their doctor’s orders carefully, making sure to only take the medication as prescribed.

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WARNING SIGNS

Someone struggling with opioid use disorder may not display symptoms right away. However, over time, there may be some signs that they need help...

  • The inability to control opioid use

  • Uncontrollable cravings

  • Drowsiness

  • Changes in sleep habits

  • Weight loss

  • Frequent flu-like symptoms

  • Decreased libido

  • Lack of hygiene

  • Changes in exercise habits

  • Isolation from family or friends

  • Stealing from family, friends or businesses

  • New financial difficulties

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Common prescriptions

  • Hydrocodone (Vicodin®)

  • Oxycodone (OxyContin®, Percocet®)

  • Oxymorphone (Opana®)

  • Morphine (Kadian®, Avinza®)

  • Codeine

  • Fentanyl

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how do they affect the brain?

Opioids bind to and activate opioid receptors on cells located in many areas of the brain, spinal cord, and other organs in the body, especially those involved in feelings of pain and pleasure. When opioids attach to these receptors, they block pain signals sent from the brain to the body and release large amounts of dopamine throughout the body. This release can strongly reinforce the act of taking the drug, making the user want to repeat the experience.

EFFECTS TO BRAIN & BODY

In the short term, opioids can relieve pain and make people feel relaxed and happy. However, opioids can also have harmful effects, including:

  • drowsiness

  • confusion

  • nausea

  • constipation

  • euphoria

  • slowed breathing

TREATMENT

Many people with addictive disorders go to hospital emergency rooms because they’re in crisis. Most hospitals provide an evaluation and assess the patient’s primary need and then connect him or her to the right treatment that best addresses their unique needs. Many general hospitals don’t admit patients solely for withdrawal or substance abuse treatment, unless there is some other factor such as a significant other medical problem present.

Substance use disorders can be best treated on an outpatient therapy basis, or in an inpatient program dedicated to the treatment of people with addiction. Many of these programs use medications to help patients transition from physical dependence on opioids.

How successful is opioid treatment?

The success of therapy for substance use disorder varies by patient and by severity of the disorder, and also can be influenced by complications of comorbidities, such as alcohol use or mental illness. Research has shown that there is a higher rate of substance use in patients with diagnoses such as depression and those who use other substances such as alcohol. Integrated treatment for both mental health and substance use disorders are needed in cases where these occur together. The environment and family or friend relationships can also play an important role.

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