Opioids are a class of natural, semi-synthetic and synthetic narcotics that are derived from the opium poppy and/or are synthesized in pharmaceutical laboratories.
Substances in the opioid family include both legal and illegal drugs:
Legal: Codeine, OxyContin™, Fentanyl, Percoset™, Vicodin™, etc. (“Pain Pills”) Morphine
Opioids are among the most abused substances. Opioids affect the brain receptors that govern the release of neurotransmitters (e.g., dopamine), which in turn regulate emotions and allow an individual to cope with physical pain.
When used correctly – e.g., in a medical setting and under a physician’s supervision – opioids are effective tools for pain management. They can be taken orally or intravenously.
When they are abused, opioids may be administered orally or by snorting, injecting or smoking. Repeated use/abuse of opioids creates the potential for addiction. Physical addiction can occur within 6 weeks of the initial opioid abuse, but psychological addiction can occur in as little as 48 hours.
Once addicted, opioid-dependent individuals cannot stop abusing opioids without triggering acute withdrawal. During acute withdrawal, the individual suffers from severe flu-like symptoms, pain, depression, and anxiety. Thereafter, post-acute withdrawal can last for months or years. Physical healing of the brain typically begins 12 to 18 months after cessation of opioid abuse.
Medication assisted treatment has been proven to be the most effective method of treating opioid addiction.
Two types of medication are used:
Methadone – the most common medication for serious opioid addiction; it is the “gold standard” for treatment
Buprenorphine – a newer medication with properties similar to methadone; it can be effective in treating early or less serious addictions
Drug addiction in general – and opioid addiction in particular – is a rapidly growing problem in the United States. The abuse of opioid pain pills is the fastest growing segment of drug use – the United States experienced an increase of over 400% between 1998 and 2008. According to a 2007 National Survey on Drug Abuse, an estimated 5.2 million people were currently using opioid prescription pain relievers illicitly (non-medically). SAMHSA’s 2008 survey indicated that only an estimated 601,000 (approximately 12%) of the 5.2 million individuals abusing opioid pain relievers are currently receiving medical treatment.