Opiate addiction has become a serious problem in the US, although its history is as old as the nation itself. Opium was widely used during the American Revolution to treat the sick and wounded; Benjamin Franklin used the drug to combat his pain from a bladder stone and Alexander Hamilton was prescribed it by his physician to treat fatal injuries resulting from his duel with Aaron Burr.

Despite our better understanding of opiate drugs and their addictive qualities, they are still prescribed today to treat chronic pain. Consequently, the number of Americans dealing with dependence or addiction to prescription drugs or their illegal variations has increased to almost epidemic proportions.

Here are the sobering statistics of America’s relationship with opium in all its forms:

  • Around 116 people die every day from opioid-related overdose
  • An estimated 12 million people admitted misusing prescription opiate drugs
  • More than 2.1 million people are known to have an opioid use disorder
  • Almost 1 million people have used the street opiate, heroin
  • In 2016 over 2 million people misused opioids for the first time
  • In 2010, more than 210 million opioid-based prescriptions were filled; enough to medicate every adult in America 24-hours a day for one month
  • The cost to the US economy of opiate abuse is more than $504 billion each year

Source: 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, US Department of Health and Human Services

What Are Opiate Drugs?

There is a huge variety of both legal and illegal opiate-based drugs including:

  • Fentanyl
  • Codeine
  • Morphine
  • Oxycodone (also called OxyContin or Percocet)
  • Hydrocodone (Vicodin or Lortab)
  • Heroin

How do they Work?

Opioids act by attaching to tiny parts of nerve cells which are called opioid receptors and they act on the brain and nervous system in the following ways:

  • Opioids create feelings of pleasure and contentment by affecting the limbic system which controls emotions
  • Opioids in the brainstem – responsible for controlling automatic functions like breathing – can slow breathing and stop coughing to reduce pain and create a sense of relaxation
  • The central nervous system or spinal cord is responsible for transmitting sensations from the body to the brain and opioids interrupt this process to lessen pain, even after very serious injuries

Signs and Symptoms of Opiate Abuse

One of the most significant signs of opiate addiction is when someone continues to use the drug, despite the negative repercussions of doing so. This gives a clear indication that the need to use may have become more of a compulsion than a necessity. It is important to know that opiate overdose symptoms are very similar to those of misuse.

Here we list some other red flags for opiate use, which can also be opiate overdose symptoms:

Physical Signs

  • Obvious elation or euphoria
  • Sedation or drowsiness
  • Confusion or being somewhat disconnected
  • Slowed breathing
  • Small, constricted pupils

Changes in Behavior

  • Visiting several doctors in order to get multiple prescriptions
  • Wild mood swings
  • A tendency to withdraw or become isolated from those close to them
  • Worsening financial problems
  • Risky behavior such as driving under the influence or theft

Opiate Abuse Treatment

When someone has developed dependence or addiction on opioid-based drugs, they face challenges should they suddenly quit. They also face the significant risk of opiate overdose symptoms. This is generally because the drug not only has a hold over their physical health, but it has negatively impacted their psychological and mental health too. For these reasons, a specialist program at an opiate treatment center is the most recommended course of action when someone has reached the point where they are actively seeking help.

One of the most valuable aspects of treatment is evaluation and assessment, which allows therapist and patient alike to unravel the issues underlying opioid-abuse and devise the most effective way to achieve recovery.

Medical Detox

The first step towards recovery is detox, which in itself does not cure addiction. Detoxing in an inpatient opiate treatment center ensures there are medical staff on-hand should opiate withdrawal symptoms become severe.

Opiate withdrawal symptoms generally start within 4-6 hours of the last dose and they are generally mild at first including:

  • Headache
  • Runny nose
  • Nausea and fever

Over the next 48-hours in detox, these symptoms are likely to get worse to include:

  • Severe depression and anxiety
  • Physical weakness and lack of energy
  • An inability to sleep despite feelings of exhaustion
  • Stomach cramps, diarrhea, and vomiting
  • Excessive sweating and muscle pain
  • Uncontrollable shaking, particularly the hands
  • Irregular heartbeat and increased blood pressure

Fortunately, there are a variety of medications available to treat opiate withdrawal symptoms as and when they arise, but this is only possible if the patient has committed themselves to a residential treatment program.

What Happens After Detox?

When the body has been rid of the toxins accumulated after abusing opiate-based drugs, continued treatment is required in either an inpatient or outpatient opiate treatment center. The best choice depends on the situation of the individual in treatment and depends on a number of factors including how supported they will be at home.

Rehab generally lasts from 30 to 90 days depending on how long the patient has been abusing opiates and their history of addiction. Much of the time in rehab is devoted to individual and group therapy, which allows patients to connect with others who understand what they are going through. Therapy sessions are also invaluable in providing addicts with a solid support network they can lean on when faced with cravings in recovery.