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Opiate Addiction

Opiates have been used as pain relievers for centuries, but modern-day production of these substances has led to a dramatic rise in abuse and addiction. Opiates include a class of drugs that are considered central nervous system depressants, meaning that they reduce the activity of the heart, lungs, and brain. Opiates include heroin, which has been illegal in the United States for decades. However, many prescription painkillers are also in the opioid class of drugs. Despite being legal when prescribed for medical purposes, abuse of narcotic pain medications is on the rise.

Opiate Addiction

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders is used by psychologists and physicians to diagnose opiate dependence. This type of addiction is characterized by the following features:

  • Tolerance, or an increase in the amount of opioids needed to achieve the same effect
  • Withdrawal, or unpleasant physical symptoms when the drug isn’t taken
  • Difficulty cutting back the amount of the drug used
  • Taking larger amounts of the drug than intended
  • Spending considerable time using the drug or recovering from its effects
  • Changing lifestyle patterns, such as giving up previously enjoyed activities, because of drug use

If you recognize these symptoms in yourself or someone else, it is important to learn more about opioid addiction and to seek treatment.


In 2006, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reported that 5.1 million Americans were illicit users of prescription medications. Approximately 600,000 individuals used heroin within the past year, representing a significant percentage of opiate users in the United States. Abuse of prescription medications continues to grow, especially among adolescents. Nearly 1 in 12 high school seniors indicated that they had used Vicodin for non-medical purposes, while 1 in 20 reported illicit use of OxyContin. Furthermore, adolescents are much more likely to combine prescription painkillers with alcohol or other substances, a combination that can be dangerous or even deadly.

Opiates include a wide range of prescription medications and illicit substances, including the following:

  • Vicodin (hydrocodone)
  • OxyContin (oxycodone HCl)
  • Fentanyl
  • Codeine
  • Morphine
  • Methadone
  • Hydromorphone
  • Heroin

Overall, the societal burden of opiate abuse totals over $55 billion each year, including lost time at work, health care expenses, and criminal justice costs.


Opiates act directly on the central nervous system, affecting the brain’s pleasure centers, automated processes such as breathing, and physical sensations. Common symptoms of opiate abuse include:

  • Feeling no pain
  • Sedation or excessive tiredness
  • Feeling high or euphoric
  • Constricted pupils
  • Slurred speech
  • Compromised judgment or confusion
  • Slowed, shallow breathing
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Flushed skin or itching sensations

The onset of these symptoms depends on the type of opiate taken and individual factors such as metabolism, history of substance use, and dosage. In cases of opiate addiction, individuals often experience withdrawal symptoms after periods of not taking the drug. These symptoms may include:

  • Anxiety
  • Craving for the substance
  • Runny nose or nasal stuffiness
  • Irritability
  • Rapid breathing
  • Abdominal cramping, vomiting, and diarrhea
  • Muscle aches
  • Tremors
  • Loss of appetite
  • Excessive salivation
  • Confusion

Psychological, Social & Physical Effects

In addition to its acute physical effects, abuse of opiates has profound long-term effects on the individual as well as society at large. Although some individuals begin using opiates through experimentation, many of those addicted to prescription painkillers began using them for medical purposes. As a result, many opiate users feel a deep sense of shame. Some believe that their pattern of drug use is their fault for being weak-willed or lacking control. However, opiates directly affect the brain’s pleasure centers, fueling craving of the drug and making it difficult to stop without additional help. Long-term use of opiates can have the following physical effects:

  • Hormonal disturbances
  • Inflammation
  • Increased sensitivity to pain
  • Bacterial infections
  • Increased risk of stroke and cardiac problems
  • Seizures
  • Increased risk of suicide or overdose

In many cases, individuals suffering from opiate addiction experience significant psychological problems. These may include:

  • Major depressive disorder, characterized by persistent sadness, loss of pleasure in previously enjoyed activities, changes in appetite, and difficulty sleeping
  • Persistent anxiety
  • Guilt over substance use
  • Low self-esteem
  • Memory difficult or other cognitive dysfunction
  • Irresponsible behavior or risk-taking
  • Persistent loneliness or withdrawal from others
  • Hostility
  • Suicidal thoughts or attempts

Furthermore, opiate addiction is associated with significant social costs. Many individuals who abuse opiates have strained relationships with family members, leading to loneliness and social isolation. Opiate abuse is also associated with increased incidence of crime, with some people struggling with addiction resorting to stealing, assault, and other criminal activities associated with their drug use. Addiction may also lead to decreased work productivity, unemployment, legal problems, and increased medical bills.


Scientific research suggests that several forms of treatment may improve outcomes for those struggling with opiate dependence. The first step is undergoing a medically supervised detoxification period, in which the affected individual stops using opiates. Detox is often challenging and comes with a host of side effects, making it important to conduct this step under the close supervision of addiction specialists at a treatment facility.

Following detoxification, intensive psychotherapy is an effective approach to fostering a strong recovery. Individual psychotherapy with a treatment specialist helps individuals understand maladaptive patterns that lead to substance use, develop strategies to prevent relapse, create a plan to repair relationships with estranged family members, and take steps to re-enter the workforce. The overarching theme of psychotherapy is teaching skills that can be applied outside the treatment setting, giving the affected individual the power to make changes in his or her life. Employing psychotherapy as well as holistic treatments to curb withdrawal side effects is a strong, evidence-based approach to treatment opiate dependence.


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