By now, we’ve all heard that there is a serious opioid addiction crisis in America. But what if the crisis is in your own home? The thing about painkiller addiction is that it can happen to anyone, and it may begin innocently enough with a legitimate doctor’s prescription. Or it may begin among trusted friends, who offer an innocent-looking pill at a party or as a shared medication that was given in an effort to help you feel better or more relaxed.
Opiate drugs (also known as narcotics or opioids) actually rewire the brain. These medications alter the way we perceive pain. We all have naturally-occurring opioid receptors in our brain, and our brains all produce some natural painkillers. Our natural painkillers help us adapt and carry on despite injuries or illness. Natural, internally-produced opioids are necessary and vital.
The problem begins as soon as you introduce a foreign opioid to the body. The brain will, indeed, register less physical pain. Some people perceive a feeling of relaxation or euphoria when they first abuse opioids. Over time, however, the brain will adapt. We are adaptable creatures, after all!
Once your brain becomes accustomed to receiving external opioids, it adapts and dials down its own natural opioid production. Soon, the brain fully adjusts to the painkillers you take. This is when people start to need more pills to feel a base level of comfort. The brain becomes dependent on outside opioids to cope with any physical pain. Small events like headaches become intolerable without more and more opioids. To make matters worse, people who are dependent on opioids feel completely sick without them. It becomes a hamster wheel of use, abuse, physical pain and feeling terribly ill. The cycle, once started, is very difficult to break.
Are you worried that someone you care about has become dependent on opioids? Look out for these symptoms of opioid abuse and dependence:
- Increased arguments and a high level of irritability
- Sweats, chills, or other flu-like symptoms (when they are unable to take opioids)
- Abdominal cramps, gas, severe constipation or other digestive distress
- Periodic shaking, tremors or confusion
- Secrecy, hidden pills or unusual behavior
- Changes in normal decision making
- Chronic aches and pains
- Missed work or financial strains
- Changes in friendships or relationships
- Changes in happiness or mental health
If you suspect that someone you care about is abusing opioids or has become dependent on these drugs, you need to seek addiction treatment as soon as possible. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that more than 115 people die each day from opioid overdose. Most people don’t intend to overdose, and a fatal accident can happen suddenly at any time.
In some cases, prescription drugs become difficult to find, or higher doses become too expensive to procure. Sadly, the opioid crisis has led to a sharp increase in the sale and use of heroin across the US. Stronger prescription opioids like fentanyl are creating overdose deaths at an alarming rate, and the resurgence of heroin has led to increases in HIV and Hepatitis C. The use of stronger opioids can happen at different rates, depending on the person, their addiction and the availability of these dangerous drugs.
The prevention of opioid dependence and deaths begins with each of us. Be aware, know the signs of opioid abuse in others, and know when to seek help.
By Kathryn Millán, LPC/MHSP