Whether they’re obtained legally or illegally, opioids are highly addictive. In fact, anyone who takes these drugs for an extended period of time is at serious risk of developing an addiction. Certain factors such as the type and amount of opioids you use, and your personal history definitely play a role.
However, there’s no accurate or easy way to predict whether or not you’re susceptible to abusing opioids. These drugs are currently one of the top causes of overdose deaths in the nation. Opioid abuse and opioid addiction are also at all-time highs. If you or a loved one have been using opioids by prescription and are having a hard time stopping, you may be asking, “Why are opioids addictive?”.
With addiction, something that once brought pleasure unexpectedly becomes something that you cannot live without. If you’ve been using opioids as part of your pain management plan, you may find that you feel achy and sick unless you have them. With opioid addiction, people deal with irresistible cravings that repeatedly lead to compulsive use. This remains true even when using has a continued and progressively negative impact on their health and their lives.
Opioids stimulate the reward center in the brain to trigger the release of powerful, feel-good chemicals known as neurotransmitters. These are chemicals that your brain naturally produces and naturally distributes. They stimulate feelings of calm, relaxation, and elation. When people get high, massive surges of neurotransmitters make them feel more relaxed and more euphoric than they’ve ever felt before.
Unfortunately, prolonged, opioid use wears the brain’s reward system out. When this occurs, neurotransmitters are no longer being naturally produced and naturally released by the brain. Absent of opioids, people have virtually no means for experiencing feelings of relaxation and happiness, or even general mood balance. Given that neurotransmitters also play an important role in other functions throughout the body, widespread physical distress can be experienced as well.
At Recovery Bay Center, we offer a diverse range of treatment modalities, therapies, and support services for those struggling with opioid addiction. Our opioid addiction treatment takes an individualized and needs-specific approach to helping our clients get clean and stay that way.
What Are Opioids?
Opioids are a powerful class of drugs that affect the brain’s reward system. Often used to alleviate pain and promote feelings of euphoria, these drugs are derived from the opium poppy plant. However, while opium itself is both incredibly potent and incredibly addictive, opioids have been chemically manipulated to increase their potency and overall efficacy. They can be significantly stronger than pure opium, and significantly more habit-forming.
These synthetic derivatives of opium tend to have a far greater impact on the brain, its functioning, and its chemical processes. As highly effective pain-relieving agents, opioids are frequently prescribed for those dealing with moderate to severe pain levels. A doctor might offer opioids to someone who’s:
- Battling cancer
- Living with a chronic, progressive illness
- Experiencing end-of-life pain
- Recovering from an accident or other serious injury event
- Recovering from a major medical or dental procedure
The high potential for addiction among opioid users is currently well-known. For this reason, doctors typically only prescribe these medications when the benefits of doing so are believed to outweigh the considerable risks.
List of Popular Opioids
In terms of addiction, heroin is easily one of the most well-known opioids on the market. Categorized according to U.S. Federal laws as a Class I narcotic, heroin uses molecules from the opium plant, but is largely considered a synthetic or semi-synthetic compound. This illegal substance is frequently used by people in search of physical or emotional pain relief.
People who’ve developed addictions to prescription opioids often turn to heroin when their prescribed medications are no longer accessible. A short list of opioids legally prescribed as narcotic pain medications include:
- Meperidine (Demerol)
Although the majority of these drugs are prescribed for oral ingestion, fentanyl is typically offered as a skin patch. Fentanyl is chemically similar to morphine, and affects the brain and body in very similar ways. However, fentanyl is estimated to be 50 to 100 times more addictive than pure morphine. When highly addictive medications like fentanyl are prescribed by doctors, even people who’ve never struggled with addictive behaviors before can have a hard time controlling their opioid use.
This list of opioids is not all-inclusive. Many frequently prescribed opioids are combined with acetaminophen for additional pain-relief. Some are also combined with an opioid antagonist like Naloxone. This is done to limit the risk of opioid overdose among prescription users.
How Does Opioid Addiction Start?
People who’ve taken opioids for any extended period of time know that these drugs promote both good and bad feelings. Although opioids relieve pain, there is also a considerable amount of discomfort that they’re capable of causing. The common side effects of opioid abuse include:
- Difficulty breathing
and many other ill-effects. So why are opioids addictive?
Opioid addiction is somewhat different from addiction to other substances. With methamphetamine, cocaine, and other drugs, people generally move through several phases of use before reaching full-blown addiction. With these substances, it can take time and repeated exposure for changes in brain chemistry and brain functioning to occur.
Conversely, products like fentanyl and heroin can result in near-instant changes in brain chemistry, and near-instant addiction. The release of neurotransmitters or “feel-good” chemicals that results from using opioids is incredibly intense. Most opioid users attest to never feeling anything like it. Opioids trigger massive surges in dopamine and other neurotransmitters at once.
As such, users often return for a repeat of the same euphoric experiences. In some cases, the effects on brain chemistry and brain functioning are both immediate and long-lasting.
One of the hallmarks of chemical dependency or addiction is the onset of uncomfortable and even dangerous withdrawal symptoms when abstaining. Although a person might struggle to overcome intense cravings for opioids when abusing these products, addiction can be confirmed when the body goes into a state of distress without them.
When opioids are prescribed for pain relief, people enter into dangerous territory. Sometimes they may take more than their doctors have advised. Others will start seeking alternative ways to obtain them. For instance, a person with a hydrocodone addiction might borrow, buy, or even steal pills from family members or friends after their own prescription has run out.
Many prescription and non-prescription opioids are sold illegally, and purchased by people who were first introduced to these drugs as the result of medical treatment. Among some of the top signs of opioid abuse are behavioral. These include stealing pills, purchasing them illegally, or turning to street drugs like heroin or fentanyl.
Sadly, the answer to “How does opioid addiction start?” is largely related to the nature of these substances. Their impact on brain chemistry makes long-term use without addiction virtually impossible.
Why Are Opioids So Addictive?
The brain’s reward system is designed to release neurotransmitters or “feel good” chemicals in response to healthy, life-affirming behaviors. For instance, if you complete an especially-grueling workout, you’ll likely experience a mood-boosting endorphin rush.
Neurotransmitters like dopamine are used by the body to incite motivation, encourage focus, and provide many other mood- and performance-related benefits. These chemicals also play critical roles in various aspects of your general functioning. For instance, without natural dopamine production, you may find yourself struggling with fine motor control, balance, and overall coordination.
When opioids are used for long periods of time, frequent dopamine surges burn the neurotransmitters out. The cells that produce dopamine and other neurotransmitters like it stop functioning properly. As a result, opioid users become less and less able to naturally produce these chemicals. They also become less able to function without using opioids to compensate for these changes.
This is in large part why people gradually begin exceeding their prescribed doses of these drugs. Tolerance is built with ongoing use, but additional support may be needed from these products as the brain’s chemistry is altered. The addictive properties of opioids are manifold. Addiction is both the response to neurological changes caused by abuse, and a desire to experience the higher-than-normal levels of relaxation and euphoria that only opioids can provide.
How Long Do Opioids Stay in Your System?
Opioids have relatively short half-lives. This means that they are quickly removed from the system after ingestion. Whether smoked, snorted, taken orally, injected, or introduced by patch, the effects of these drugs can be near-immediate.
Certain factors determine how long these same effects will last. These include:
- The type of opioid being used
- The manner of ingestion
- A person’s length or overall history of opioid use/abuse
- Body weight
- The health of the filter organs
Heroin is both fast-acting and quick to leave the system. Saliva tests are capable of identifying heroin in the system for between 5 and 7 hours following use. Urine tests may be capable of identifying heroin in the system for a week or even longer depending upon the individual. Hair tests can detect all forms of opioid use for up to 90 days.
When detoxing from heroin and other opioids, the goal is to abstain until all of these substances and any residual chemicals have been removed. After this time, the brain will be forced to rely on its own neurotransmitter production, and overall brain chemistry will start to normalize.
With certain forms of opioid addiction, damages to the brain and its functioning may be permanent. In these instances, long-term recovery may require long-term medical support. The risk of relapse for those who’ve used opioids always remains high. As such, rehab centers always advise patients to have long-term support plans that include things like:
- Sober sponsors or accountability partners
- Outpatient counseling
- Relapse prevention services
- Support groups
Treating Opioid Addiction
Opioid addiction is one of the most challenging forms of substance use disorder for people to overcome. The symptoms of opioid withdrawal can include:
- Abdominal pain
Although opioid withdrawal can be incredibly intense, these and other common withdrawal symptoms are not believed to be life-threatening. In fact, they often closely mirror many of the physical side effects or signs of opioid abuse. Notwithstanding this, getting professional detox support is always advised. People who attempt to go “cold turkey” by undergoing the detox process at home are at an incredibly high risk of relapsing.
There is also a window during which recovering addicts are at an especially high risk of overdosing. Relapsing after losing tolerance to these drugs can result in using more of an opioid than the body can handle.
At Recovery Bay Center, we’re well-aware of just how difficult opioid addiction can be. We also understand that the challenges of recovery can be different for each individual. Our opioid addiction treatment services are entirely customizable. We provide access to medical detox support, and we offer an expansive range of mental health services and therapies.
Our team is committed to helping people relearn how to function without opioids through the use of cognitive behavioral therapy, dual diagnosis treatment, stress management and more. If you’ve been abusing opioids and need help, we’re always here to provide it. Get in touch with us today to get detailed information on our rehab programs or to get answers to your questions about opioid addiction.