Opioid Drugs: How They Work
Opioid drugs get a bad rep due to the ongoing opioid crisis in America, but they do serve a legitimate medical purpose: to treat pain. They work by binding to opioid receptors in the brain, spinal cord, and other parts of the body where they inhibit pain messages sent to the brain. This reduces feelings of pain while providing a calming, relaxed feeling and euphoria.1
In some instances, other types of medications may not effectively treat pain, making opioid drugs a great option for relief. Higher doses of opioid painkillers tend to provide more relief and work better, but large doses can also be extremely addictive.
Additionally, if a person takes opioid drugs for a long period of time, their body will adapt to the presence of the substance and he or she may develop a tolerance, which will require more of the drug to achieve the same effects. Even regular use of opioid painkillers can produce tolerance and in turn, lead to addiction, as a result of the intense feelings of euphoria they create.2
The Risks of Long-Term Opioid Pain Management
Doctors may prescribe long-term use of opioid drugs to treat certain chronic pain conditions. This, in and of itself, is not necessarily a bad thing, but effective and safe chronic opioid therapy should always involve:
- A comprehensive evaluation of the patient being considered for chronic opioid therapy
- Careful development of a care plan and treatment agreements to guide opioid use
- Close monitoring with frequent follow-up visits
- Periodic use of urine drug screening
Unfortunately, most medical treatment received in a primary care setting does not strictly adhere to these guidelines.3This increases a person’s risk for developing an addiction if they are taking opioid drugs on a long-term basis.
Some of the most commonly prescribed opioid drugs include:
- Fentanyl (Duragesic)
- Hydrocodone (Norco, Vicodin)
- Hydromorphone (Dilaudid)
- Morphine (Avinza, Astramorph)
- Oxycodone (OxyContin, Percocet)
Most often, these drugs are prescribed in pill form, but they may also be prescribed in patch form, which can be placed on the skin and absorbed directly through the body tissues.3
If a person has used opioid painkillers for a long period of time (either recreationally or for the purpose of treating a medical condition) but chooses to stop using them, he or she should not suddenly stop taking them, as this can produce uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. Instead, a person should seek out the assistance of their doctor or a drug detox center to safely and gradually wean themselves off of the opioid drug(s).
Safe Use of Opioid Drugs vs. Opioid Abuse
If your doctor prescribes an opioid drug for the treatment of your pain or medical condition, you should be very aware of the risks and always maintain caution, even when taking the medicine as prescribed.
When used safely, opioid drug use should only involve taking the medicine as prescribed by your doctor and safely disposing of any leftover medication once your doctor says you no longer need the drugs.
A person may abuse opioid painkillers in a number of different ways, including:
- Taking larger doses than prescribed
- Taking someone else’s opioid painkillers
- Taking opioid drugs more often than prescribed
Warning Signs of Opioid Painkiller Addiction
If you believe that your loved one is addicted to opioid painkillers or that you may have crossed a line yourself, there are several warning signs that may signal a need for drug detox and long-term addiction treatment. Some physical signs of opioid drug abuse include5:
- Lack of coordination
- Poor judgment and decision-making skills
- Increased pain with higher doses
- Mood swings or hostility
- Increase or decrease in sleep
Other warning signs that you or a loved one may be addicted to opioid painkillers are:
- Stealing or forging opioid prescriptions
- “Losing” prescriptions and returning to the doctor for more
- Getting prescriptions from more than one doctor
- Being preoccupied with your medication and constantly thinking about it
- Getting painkillers from other sources outside of your doctor (ie. buying from dealers, purchasing online, etc.)
- Continuing to take painkillers for months or years
- Feeling defensive when people approach you about your drug use
Preventing Opioid Addiction
Taking opioid painkillers safely may prove to be more difficult than anticipated. Currently, some scientists are seeking alternative forms of pain management, but opioid drugs are still frequently prescribed by doctors to treat various conditions or for short and long-term pain management.
Anyone who is addicted to opioid painkillers must first complete drug detox to wean themselves off of the drugs. The safest and most comfortable way to withdrawal from prescription opioid drugs is to complete a medically-assisted drug detox program at a trusted detox center.
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