Opiate Addiction: Signs, Symptoms and Treatment

World history has shown that humans have had a long and complicated relationship with opium use and subsequent opiate addiction.  Even today, opium production is a monstrous industry, resulting in the distribution of thousands of tons of medical and therapeutic opiate products, as well as many tons of opiates distributed for illicit use.  This duality of use often compounds and confuses the general perception of opium products, as it is difficult for many people to imagine that the same substance can both improve and destroy human lives.  However, as with all things, moderation is the key.  When moderation is ignored or lost, opiate addiction can rapidly consume a person’s life.  For this reason, education is the key to mitigating opiate addiction.


What are opiates?

Opiates

Opiates are a class of drugs that are derived from various parts of the opium poppy plant - most notably the immature seed pods.  By scoring the pods repeatedly with a sharp knife, a brown latex substance may be collected that can be used to formulate some of the world’s oldest - and newest - pharmaceutical and medicinal products.  This is because the pods contain high levels of naturally occurring compounds such as morphine, codeine, and thebaine - the most powerful and widely used narcotic in the world.

Humans have been harvesting the poppy plant for its medicinal and spiritual enhancing properties since the Neolithic Age.  For more than 8,000 years, the most powerful and widespread civilizations that have ever existed have had a long and intricate relationship with the poppy plant and opium.  The ancient Sumerians, Greeks, Egyptians, Persians, Romans, Chinese and Arabs all cultivated and harvested the poppy plant to make use of the opiate compounds it contains.  In fact, some of the world’s modern medical techniques and practices were developed by ancient doctors and surgeons who made excellent use of the plant.

Opiates have been and are still used as potent analgesics, antitussives, and antidiarrheals.  These drugs are extremely powerful and very effective, but they are not without their various side effects.  Of these, the most dangerous and complicated is opiate addiction.  As an example, China launched a major prohibition against opiate use in the early 1700’s.  The Chinese mainland and most of Europe at the time were involved in a massive opium trade that many to this day find difficult to imagine.  But despite the prohibition and the violence used to enforce it, opiate addiction actually increased for two hundred years in China after the prohibition was implemented.  This resulted in more than 25% of all Chinese men being dependent or addicted to the drug by the early 20th century.  Today, the fight against opiate addiction is still as prevalent and possibly even more widespread.

Opiates work by binding to opioid receptors located in the brain and the central nervous system.  Drugs manufactured from opiates include some of the most widely used pharmaceuticals in the world: morphine, oxycodone, heroin, hydrocodone, methadone, and codeine, to name just a few.  Opiates are typically used to treat chronic pain from surgery, severe trauma, progressive or incurable diseases, and even pain where the cause is unknown.

Common Opiates

Opiate Addiction and Opiate Tolerance

The trouble with opiates is that, when taken for more than a few weeks, tolerance rapidly develops.  This means that an increase in dosage or frequency is required to achieve the same pain-relieving effects.  While this is a natural process and can happen with any drug introduced consistently to the body, the fact remains that increased tolerance levels often progresses to physical dependency.  As opiates are built up in the blood, the body responds by activating the central nervous system to mitigate or lessen the effects produced by the drug.  This is an important natural function, but not one without consequences.  Once the drug is reduced or eliminated from the bloodstream, the body will revert back to its normal state, causing a series of debilitating symptoms caused by withdrawal syndrome.

However, it should be noted that opiate addiction and tolerance to or physical dependence on the drug are distinctly different afflictions.  Opiate addiction is usually classified according to a set of specific drug-seeking and drug-craving behaviors.  This includes loss of control of the drug, where a user will not remember how much they took when their next dose is, or they may overdose or attempt to hoard or collect the drug.  Another characteristic, and perhaps the most important one, is that the user will refuse to discontinue use of the drug despite severe consequences such as the loss of a career or job, difficulties in relationships, or trouble with the law.  All opiate addicts also obsess over the drug, and their lives become consumed with obtaining the drug, using it, hiding it, and recovering from it.

Opiate addiction can be extremely dangerous due to the many negative side effects it causes.  These include but are not limited to severe constipation, vomiting, diarrhea, sweating, dizziness, anxiety, confusion, paranoia, slow heart or breathing rate, and others.  Of these, the most dangerous side effect is the likelihood that a user will overdose and die from respiratory depression.  Additionally, many opiates produced or available illicitly on the black market may be cut with unknown substances, or the potency may be entirely unregulated, making it difficult to know how much is being consumed and what properties it will have.

Opiate Addiction Treatment

Thankfully, because opium and opiate addiction have been a world issue for thousands of years, there are many resources available for proper treatment.  Caring and compassionate groups and individuals around the world have made it their life’s work to help people to break free from the cycle of opiate addiction.  The first step in this process is detox.

Detoxification refers to the process whereby the opiates are withdrawn from the body in a controlled environment.  This way, medical symptoms of withdrawal can be managed, and the patient can begin to recover in a safe place that is removed from the factors and environments that enabled their drug use in the first place.

Following detoxification, a person can continue to receive the mental and emotional support they need by participating in an inpatient treatment program or drug rehabilitation center.  Patients are provided with educational materials and resources to help them continue to fight their opiate addiction.  This includes individual, family, and group therapy, in addition to social groups and support organizations such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous.  Therapy is usually continued for years after the addiction is broken in order to decrease the likelihood of a relapse.

Whatever the case may be and no matter how bad things get, there is always help available for those suffering from opiate addiction.  Afflicted individuals can go directly to a treatment center, or they can call, write, or email for help.  Being that most treatment programs involve family members and loved ones in order to maximize the chance for success, help is often found by consulting a trusted relative, who can make all of the necessary arrangements and provide much-needed support during the entire process to break the chains of opiate addiction.