Opioid Dependence


What are opioids?

Opioids are narcotics, i.e. they produce narcosis, which means they make you sleepy. They’re typically used to treat pain, but illicit opioids like heroin are used to get high. When opioids are used in sufficient quantity, the user experiences a trance-like state of bliss. Paradoxically, if too much is used, the respiratory system fails and the user begins to suffocate.

Over the years, the strength of various opioids has risen sharply. So has the rate of opioid dependence and overdose. The US is currently in the midst of a full blown opioid epidemic, the likes of which have not been seen since the Civil War when Morphine was handed out in handfuls to soldiers in the North to fight the Southerners.


Opioid dependence

Opioid dependence means an opioid user is susceptible to opioid withdrawal whenever he or she stops taking opioids. The length of time required to become physically dependent varies from person to person, but it generally takes just a few weeks of daily use. Opioid dependents are so driven to avoid withdrawal symptoms, they stop at almost nothing to obtain more and more opioids, even if that means damaging relationships, losing a job or going to jail.


Opioid withdrawal

Opioid withdrawal refers to a wide range of symptoms that develop shortly after discontinuation – for any person physically dependent to opiates. Symptoms of opioid withdrawal are similar to influenza symptoms, but the good news is that opioid withdrawal can easily be treated.


Early symptoms of opioid withdrawal include: 

  • Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Dilated pupils
  • Runny nose
  • Sweating
  • Increased tearing
  • Yawning

Late symptoms of opioid withdrawal include:

  • Abdominal cramping
  • Muscle aches
  • Goose bumps
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Insomnia

Withdrawal symptoms are very uncomfortable but are usually not life threatening. An opioid addict who is experiencing withdrawal symptoms may think they are going to die, but they’re much more likely to die from using opioids than they are from coming off opioids.


Opioid withdrawal complications

Two of the most severe threats posed by opiate withdrawal are diarrhea and vomiting, which can lead to dehydration if fluids are not replaced. Water and electrolytes (sodium, chloride, potassium and bicarbonate) are lost through liquid stools, vomit, sweat, urine and breathing. It is important to replenish fluids and maintain adequate hydration during opiate withdrawal.


Opioid withdrawal treatment

Opiate withdrawal treatment involves supportive care and pharmacotherapies. Specialized medications have been shown to work better than many other types of opiate withdrawal treatment. Buprenorphine based meds typically shorten the length of opiate addiction treatment.