Signs of Opiate Dependency

Signs of Opiate Dependency

Drug addiction is a scary and confusing time in someone’s life and it’s important to understand what an addict and their loved ones go through. Drug addiction can come in all shapes and sizes, but one of the most common, and often most damaging, is opiate addiction.

First, we need to understand what an opiate is, and how it affects the brain. Then, we can dive into opiate abuse and dependency, what an opiate abuser or addict might look and act like, and how you can find help. Here at HARP Treatment Center, we take drug addiction and recovery very seriously. Our founding principles of honesty, assertiveness, responsibility, and peace are what set us apart from other recovery facilities and we hope to serve as a source of education and guidance for those struggling with addiction and the community that supports them.


What is an Opiate?

Opiates include both legal drugs, such as morphine, oxycodone, and hydrocodone, and illegal drugs such as heroin and opium. According to, the term “opiates” encompasses drugs derived from the opium poppy. Not to be confused with the pretty flowers you often see in the spring or the seeds in your morning muffin, opiates and opioids are serious drugs that, even when taken legally, have a major influence on your body.

There are many different ways to use opioids, including in a pill or liquid form and intravenously. As with other drugs, intravenously is the most immediate, highest dose because it is injected directly into the bloodstream. One common myth is that if a drug is prescribed, a user can’t become addicted. This is a common misconception because we trust medical professionals, but prolonged use of a drug like an opiate can be dangerous and addictive. Often, abuse and addiction begins with exceeding a prescribed dose or taking a combination of drugs.


How Opiates Affect the Brain

Don’t worry, we won’t force you to flashback to 8th grade biology classes, but it’s beneficial to know how opiates, both in legal and illegal uses, affect the brain and basic bodily functions.

Our brains have different receptors that are responsible for processes and emotions. For example, we have reward receptors and receptors that are responsible for sadness. Opiates attach to the receptors that are responsible for dopamine release. Dopamine is the chemical that makes us feel elated or euphoric, and when opiates and similar drugs attach to these receptors, they release an increased amount of dopamine. With the increased release comes the “high” that relieves pain (and that addicts seek). Users may seem spacey because their brain function is instantly affected. Opioid painkillers also depress the central nervous system and slow down body functions. Prolonged usage can also affect the way our bodies produce endorphins, which are natural opiates.

With continued use, these brain receptors become accustomed to the behavior and seek more of the drug. This is why when patients are prescribed opiates for pain management, they must slowly wean themselves off of the drug instead of quitting completely right away. Prolonged use can also affect the way an individual’s body manages pain naturally, because of the change in endorphin production.


Opioid Dependence Versus Addiction

At first, it may seem like drug dependence and addiction are the same thing, and while individuals often exhibit similar behavior with the two scenarios, there is a difference.

  • Drug dependence is when an individual becomes accustomed to taking a certain drug and must wean themselves off of it, like in the painkiller example mentioned earlier. They may have become inadvertently dependent because of continued use and must consult with a medical professional on how to stop use in a healthy manner.
  • Drug addiction is when an individual is so dependent on a drug that they compulsively seek it, despite the physical and social consequences. A common myth is that overcoming addiction is simply a matter of willpower and that addicts can stop using if they really want to, but this isn’t the case. In reality, prolonged drug use alters the brain in a powerful way. This is why addicts often have to spend time at treatment or rehabilitation centers like HARP to stop using.

Our staff of psychiatrists, doctors, clinicians, and counselors have an intimate understanding of the difference between dependence and addiction and treat each client with the individualized care they need.


Opiate Addiction and Abuse

Because opiates are so readily available in the United States, opioid addiction is one of the biggest drug problems today. According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, of the 21.5 million Americans 12 and older that had a substance use disorder in 2014, 1.9 million had a substance use disorder involving prescription pain relievers. Opiates may be prescribed as painkillers after a major surgery or dental procedure, to alleviate mild or severe pain, or after an injury. Unfortunately, many people develop an addiction to opiates after being prescribed a legal dose, as they seek the pleasurable effects of the drug. In fact, as of 2010, 12 million Americans reported using prescription pain medications for nonmedical purposes. Some of the immediate effects of opiate use include:

  • Elation or euphoria
  • Sedation and drowsiness
  • Pain relief
  • Nausea

While there is a clear difference between taking opiate drugs like oxycodone as prescribed and drug abuse, it’s important to see the linear connection between these two classifications. Imagine a common scenario:

A young male is involved in a car accident and is prescribed oxycodone for his injuries. His doctor recommends a safe dose to manage his pain. After two months, his injuries have healed, but his nerve cells have grown used to having the opiates around. When they are taken away, the man feels unpleasant and wants more. He then buys opiates illegally and becomes addicted.

This is a basic example of how an opiate addiction can start, and there is more to the equation that is not considered here, but the key is that this scenario is more common than we would like. According to the American Society of Addiction Medicine, in 2012, 259 million prescriptions were written for opioids, which is more than enough to give every American adult their own bottle of pills. Also, opiates are one of the most dangerous drugs to abuse because even one large dose can send someone to the ER. So how do you know if someone is addicted to opiates?


What Does an Opiate Addiction Look Like?

Addiction manifests itself in different ways with every user, but there are some common threads to look for if you are concerned that someone you know is abusing the drug. Opiate abusers will likely seem aloof, unaware of their surroundings, or emotionally absent. They may also be experiencing changes in eating and sleeping patterns, which can result in rapid weight loss and abnormal behavior during the day.

Opiate abusers may also disregard various social responsibilities in pursuit of the drug. Sadly, this behavior is what causes drug violence, abuse, and child neglect. When on drugs, an addict may only be able to focus on one thing — getting their next high.


The Effects of an Opiate Addiction

As with any drug, there are both short and long term effects. In the simplest terms, opiates initiate the release of dopamine, which is the chemical in our brains responsible for pleasure. With increased levels of dopamine come increased need for the behavior. In this case, the brain gets accustomed to the opiate and wants more. The short term effects of this increased dopamine release include:

  • Instantaneous euphoria
  • A head “rush”
  • Flushing of the skin
  • Drowsiness
  • Numbness

More important than the short-term effects, though, is the damage opiate abuse can have on your body. In addition to the “crash,” or drowsiness and mental cloudiness that users feel after a few hours of injection, opioids affect long-term heart, brain, and cognitive functions. When used in massive amounts, the drug can even cause coma, permanent brain damage, or death. Other long-term effects include:

  • Insomnia (severe difficulty sleeping)
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Decreased brain function
  • Agitation
  • Liver damage
  • Heart damage
  • Severe respiratory problems

In addition to the physical manifestations of addiction, there are usually many social side effects that take place, as well.


Timeline of an Opiate Addict

One of the most common questions recovering drug addicts ask is how long it will take them to stop having withdrawals and get completely clean. This question seems simple enough, but it’s different for every person and situation. There is no clear timeline, but generally withdrawal symptoms start within a few hours of a user’s last dose and can last as long as a year. In addition to the physical withdrawal symptoms, such as cramping, vomiting, and muscle aches, there are also emotional and psychological symptoms.

It is not recommended to stop taking opiates “cold turkey” or all at once, but instead ease off of the drugs. Medical professionals, like those found at the HARP Treatment Center, know the best way of weaning off opiates and making the experience as comfortable as possible for the patient. At our treatment center, we start with an intensive, one-on-one session to diagnose the problem and come up with an appropriate solution. Recovery depends on a number of factors, including genetic disposition, physical environment, past drug history, and many more. We examine all of these factors to determine what the best course of recovery is.

During the withdrawal phase, symptoms will likely peak at two or three days after the last dose. Luckily, recovery from opiate dependence is rarely life-threatening, but it can be uncomfortable.

A common myth that we often hear is that loved ones can’t force someone into treatment if they don’t want help, but this is not the cause. Those pressured into treatment by others, an employer, or the government are just as likely to recover as those who put themselves through the treatment, therefore it’s important to consider treatment if you or someone you know is struggling with addiction.


If Someone You Know Needs Help

It may be difficult to tell if someone you love is struggling with addiction because they may deny the problem, downplay their situation, or completely neglect that they have any sort of problem in the first place. Earlier, we talked about some of the most common signs of someone who is addicted to opiates, so if you are witnessing these or any others, it might be a good idea to help.

First, speak up. Gently mention your concern to the individual and offer your support without being judgmental or condescending. If an opiate addict feels trapped or picked on, they will often shut down and not accept help. Instead, offer words of guidance and support and express your concern for their wellbeing.

Next, remember to stay safe and seek sources of guidance for your own situation. Dealing with an opiate addict can be stressful and demanding, so feel free to reach out to a family member or therapist if you experience serious signs of stress or depression. As much as you want to help your loved one, it is crucial to take care of yourself, as well.


If You Are Seeking Help

Recognizing you have a problem, either with opioid abuse or addiction, is the first step in recovering and the one that may be the hardest to accept. At HARP Treatment Center, we have multiple programs designed to help adults struggling with addiction on their road to recovery.

The most important thing when you are recovering is to surround yourself with support, encouragement, and guidance. Unfortunately for many individuals, their social circles or home environment may trigger the use of opiates or other drugs. If this is the case, we encourage you to reach out to one of our support staff or another recovery facility for assistance.

There is a reason why our founding principles are honesty, assertiveness, responsibility, and peace. These four aspects drive what we do at HARP and address different phases of recovery. Our psychiatrists, doctors, and counselors are trained in the fields of alcoholism, addiction, co-occurring disorders, and others. We have different programs suited for each client’s’ needs and evaluate the program based on their situations and goals.


If you or someone you know would benefit from our services and needs help with an opiate addiction, contact us today at 561-379-3299.

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