With increasingly available prescription pain killers on the market, lowering costs of street drugs like heroin, and more overdose deaths than our country has ever seen, it's no wonder the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the World Health Organization(WHO), and U.S. Department of health and Human Services (HHS) are all calling the rising opiate crisis an actual epidemic.
You've probably heard the term "opiate" thrown around in the news or among friends before but you may not have known exactly what this type of drug really is. An opiate is a term used to describe a substance that's derived from the opium poppy which can be found naturally growing in the Mediterranean.
When the seed pods of these plants are cut open, they extrude a thick latex which can be dried and ingested to produce sedative properties. This dried latex is referred to as opium. While opium was once a highly used drug, so much so that many historians blame downfalls of entire Chinese dynasties on the substance, opium use and abuse is rare in the modern western world.
The drugs extracted from opium, however, are much more common today. Morphine, for example, is a substance extracted from opium and is the root chemical that has contributed to the synthesis of a wide range of synthetic "opioids" (drugs made from opiates). A few notable legal opioids are oxycodone, hydrocodone, tramadol, and fentanyl. Heroin is also produced from morphine.
Besides heroin, many of these drugs are legally prescribed to treat a wide range of pain symptoms, from acute to chronic. As opioids though, they are especially habit forming and, as such, have a high risk of being abused.
Like all other drugs, opiates affect our bodies by acting on and simulating certain neurotransmitters inside the brain. These neurotransmitters are responsible for a variety of chemical and physical processes in our body and regulate everything from problem solving and coordination to emotions and perceiving the passage of time.
Certain neurons in our brain are covered by what is known as opioid receptors. These specialized areas have a structural opening that particular neurotransmitters can fill and thus set of a chain reaction that starts a specific process. The neurotransmitters that fit with opioid receptors are called endogenous opioids and include endorphins, dynorphin, and enkephalins which all help to regulate pain.
When opiates are introduced into the system, our brains are filled with chemicals that have a similar structure to these chemicals and, thus, are able to bind with and activate these receptors, resulting in pain relief as well as a sense of euphoria. Plus, like many illicit substances, the sheer number of opiates released and therefore the number of receptors stimulated is far higher than that produced by any natural process. Think of opiates, then, as an imposter that in a sense is hijacking your brain's opioid receptors.
After a long enough period of using and abusing opioids though, your brain starts to get used to the presence of these chemicals floating around and decides to cut back on the natural endogenous opioid production to try and even things out. Beyond that, it also tends to shut off some of these receptors, making the effects far less powerful. This process is called tolerance and will require even more of the opiates to produce the same effects as before.
The combination of the incredibly intense highs brought on by flooding the brain with opiates as well as the development of tolerance are two of the main factors that contribute to the development of an opiate addiction.
One of the most widely used opiates is heroin. This powerful and incredibly addictive opiate comes in the form of a white or brown powder in most cases. It can also be sold as what's known as "black tar heroin" which appears to be a black sticky substance.
This powder can be smoked or snorted but is most often heated up and melted and then injected directly into the bloodstream.
Another common form of opiate abuse is found in prescription opioids. These pills are usually legally obtained from a doctor to treat certain types of pain and are more often than not simply taken orally. Once abusive patterns of behavior develop, however, an opiate addict may begin smoking, snorting, or injecting crushed up prescription opioids in order to intensify their high.
A few common street names for prescription opioids include:
Some street names for heroin include:
It's worth pointing out that prescription opioid abuse is increasingly becoming a problem that is only getting more and more out of hand with each passing year.
From 1999 to 2014, for example, the number of opioid overdoses nearly tripled. Beyond that, nearly 61% of all drug overdoses in 2014 were due to opiates. The problem is so widespread that the CDC estimates that 91 people die from an opioid overdose every single day.
Part of this frightening trend is due to the rise in prescription opioid use and abuse, due in part to the over-prescribing of this powerful pain medication. Many doctors are simply prescribing these medications for any type of chronic pain when there are actually less addictive alternatives available that may work just as well.
What's more, since these substances are so addictive, even following a doctor's orders down to a T can still lead to addiction to opiates. And once you're hooked on prescription pills, you have a higher chance of switching over to harder and more accessible street drugs like heroin. In fact, nearly four out of every five Americans who use heroin report abusing prescription opioids before moving on to heroin.
Besides the immediate high or "rush" of using opiates, there are a variety of both short-term and long-term effects that can be a serious detriment to your health.
A few of the short-term effects include:
While the short-term effects may not seem too serious, the long-term effects are really where the true dangers of opiates reveal themselves:
What's more, high levels of opioid abuse can lead to severe respiratory depression and arrest, leading to unconsciousness, coma, and possible death.
Contracting blood-borne pathogens like HIV or hepatitis, for instance, is far more likely due to the practice of sharing needles with others. What's more, street drugs can contain a mixture of other chemicals as well, leading to a higher possibility of overdose or other permanent health problems.
The signs of withdrawal from opiate addiction can be quite intense and are one of the main reasons opiate abusers will end up relapsing. They include:
While these symptoms are not typically life threatening, they can still be incredibly uncomfortable. As such, the treatment plan for opiate addiction will typically involve medication-assisted recovery to help aid in getting through the detox portion of rehabilitation.
After that, many programs will incorporate a variety of behavioral therapies as well as direct counseling to help get to the heart of the addiction.
If you suspect someone you're close to may be abusing opioids, taking the time to keep your eyes peeled for a few signs can be the first step down their road to recovery and towards a cleaner, drug-free life.
While this list is not definitive and also doesn't necessarily mean they're definitively addicted to opioids, it's a great place to start recognizing the signs.
When it comes to what to do if someone you know is abusing opioids, make sure you do five things:
While convincing someone to get help can be incredibly difficult, doing so just might end up saving their life.
Opiate addiction is one of the biggest problems our country is facing today. And with their powerfully addictive qualities, extremely dangerous characteristics, and wide availability, it really isn't any surprise.
If you or someone you know has an opioid abuse problem, getting help today can save a lifetime of hardship.
Reach out today. We know how hard addiction can be. Recovery is possible!