Opioid addiction is a type of substance use disorder characterized by a compulsive need to keep taking opioids regardless of the harm they cause. Also known as opioid use disorder (OUD), this problem is very common and may lead to overdose and death. The term opioid refers to a class of drugs usually prescribed to treat pain.
Symptoms of opioid addiction are listed below.
Opiate addiction can cause disastrous effects on a person’s health. Like other types of addiction, this problem is also manageable. A person can achieve successful recovery with proper treatment. The treatment for OUD usually includes a combination of therapy and medications such as:
A shallow or slow breathing rate occurs when a person takes fewer breaths than usual in a given minute. In adults, this is usually fewer than 12 breaths per minute. Opioids can depress breathing. For that reason, people with opioid addiction tend to struggle with shallow or slow breathing. The more drugs a person takes, the slower is their breathing rate.
Physical agitation is the inability to remain calm or stay still. Instead, an agitated person uses movement to release anxiety and tension. Physical agitation is among the most common signs of opioid addiction. In this case, a person keeps fidgeting and moves fast for no purpose or reason. Agitation is also a withdrawal symptom in patients undergoing opioid addiction treatment.
The main reason behind physical agitation in opioid addiction is the intense impact of these drugs on an opiate addict's behavior and brain.
Someone with opioid addiction may be particularly agitated when they’re unable to use the drug or are struggling to obtain a prescription to get more.
Poor decision-making refers to the inability to connect the problem to the overall strategy in order to make the best possible choice. A poor decision is an act or judgment that is misguided or wrong. People make bad decisions for many reasons, including opioid addiction.
Evidence shows opioid addiction may influence cognitive control and decision-making by enhancing the subjective value of a reward and decreasing aversive arousal. Additionally, personality markers and anxiety influence poor decision-making in people with opioid addiction.
Poor decision-making can often lead to mistakes that are difficult or impossible to fix and further aggravate other opioid addiction symptoms.
Abandoning responsibilities means neglecting tasks, chores, and other responsibilities at home, school, or work. A person fails to meet deadlines or to keep up with all the responsibilities due to a specific reason, in this case, opioid addiction.
Pain medication addiction affects a person’s behavior. They tend to become irresponsible and lose interest in their work or other assignments. With reduced interest, they lose the sense of urgency and desire to get something done. In other words, a patient with opioid addiction may sometimes purposely decide to abandon their responsibilities. For others, abandoning responsibilities results from dedicating a lot of time to drug use, planning, and obtaining opioids.
Friends and family members usually notice their loved one is behind with tasks or has problems at work. It’s not uncommon for people with opioid addiction to lose their jobs and fall behind with other responsibilities in life.
The term mood swing refers to sudden or intense changes in a person’s mental state. A person can quickly switch from sadness to happiness and frustration. Mood swings are particularly emphasized in people with opioid addiction.
A person with opioids abuse can exhibit rapid and intense mood swings. They may switch from a very positive and highly motivated attitude to depression, frustration, and even hostility.
The more someone uses opioids, the more serious are mood swings. Withdrawal from opioid addiction may also contribute to mood swings and behavioral problems.
Family and friends usually notice a person quickly changes moods without apparent reason. These moods could depend on the availability of the drug and how it influences a person’s brain.
Irritability is frustration or anger that often stems from the smallest things. Although almost all people experience irritability at one point or another, in some persons it’s persistent. In that case, irritability is an indicator of an underlying problem such as opioid addiction.
Compulsive narcotic use can cause personality changes such as irritability. A person with OUD becomes very defensive about drug use. They tend to get easily annoyed when friends or family members express concerns about their behavior.
People with opioid addiction may argue with healthcare providers too. This happens when a doctor refuses to prescribe opioids. Many people use prescriptions too quickly. When healthcare professionals notice unhealthy behavior, they will stop prescribing the drug. This could be a source of frustration and encourage a patient to argue with healthcare practitioners.
Also, a person with OUD can become easily angry at home, for even the smallest things. This behavior is particularly present when they don’t have access to the drug at the moment or are struggling to obtain it.
Depression is a mood disorder indicated by persistent sadness, loss of interest, and other symptoms that affect a person’s daily functioning. A wide range of factors and causes can contribute to depression. Opioid addiction is one of them.
Opioid use and depression tend to hand in hand. Addiction includes prolonged use of opioids and the use of these drugs in ways that aren’t intended. People with opioid addiction use these drugs a lot longer than they should. A study from the JAMA Psychiatry showed prolonged use of opioids (longer than 30 days) can affect mood and increase the risk of treatment-resistant depression by 25%.
Although underlying mechanisms through which opioid addiction causes depression require further research, they could involve dysregulation of reward circuitry. This decreases reward pleasure or perception. Physical factors such as endocrine abnormalities are also involved.
Depression is among the common symptoms of opioid use and it occurs due to the way these drugs affect the brain. Opioids may also cause physical symptoms that contribute to depression. In people who already have this mood disorder, symptoms of depression could be amplified.
Lowered motivation refers to reduced interest in doing certain things. For some people, lowered motivation manifests itself through canceling social events whereas for others just don’t feel like doing anything.
Addiction to opioids can reduce motivation, as well. This happens because addictive drugs can activate specific sets of neuronal circuits i.e. brain’s reward system. The reward system affects a great deal of motivated behavior, which is why addiction could dampen it. As a result, a person with opioid addiction experiences problems with their motivation.
Evidence shows withdrawal from opioid addiction could also lead to reduced motivation.
Anxiety attacks are episodes of intense fear or panic. Also known as panic attacks, they tend to occur suddenly without a warning. In some cases, anxiety attacks occur due to a specific trigger. Many factors can contribute to the development of anxiety attacks and opioid addiction is one of them.
The use of opioids can precipitate anxiety disorders meaning some people are more vulnerable to anxiety attacks. At the same time, men and women with anxiety and frequent panic attacks are more susceptible to developing an addiction.
Opioid addiction may cause anxiety attacks because the drugs can affect brain areas that correspond to stress. This leads to higher levels of stress hormones, which facilitate anxiety and panic attacks.
Not only can opioid addiction cause anxiety attacks, but it can also worsen them in people who already have some anxiety disorder and a history of panic attacks.
Risk factors that may increase the chances of developing opioids addiction can be genetic, social, and environmental according to Mayo Clinic. Method and duration of use also play a role in developing opioid use disorder. The most significant risk factors for developing opioid addiction are listed below.
Common complications and impacts of opioids addiction on health are numerous with overdose being the most severe. The health effects of addiction to opioids are listed below.
If you are diagnosed with opioids addiction, the doctor may recommend medication-assisted treatment (MAT) and behavioral therapy. The exact treatment approach depends on the severity of addiction, co-occurring mental health problems, and the specific opioid abuse. The main types of opioid addiction treatment are described below:
As mentioned above, medication-assisted therapy is a common approach for many patients. This kind of treatment relies on methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone to help patients overcome opioid addiction symptoms. Medications are prescribed by healthcare professionals in controlled dosages. Healthcare professionals also supervise patients during the process. Below is more information about common medications in MAT.
Methadone is a long-acting full opioid agonist, approved by the FDA to treat opioid use disorder. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) confirms methadone helps maintain recovery and it works by reducing cravings for opioids as well as withdrawal symptoms.
Patients receive methadone under the supervision of a practitioner in methadone clinics. Methadone is taken daily and available in diskette, powder, and liquid forms. The length of the methadone treatment is a minimum of 12 months, but the duration of the therapy may vary from one patient to another.
While methadone is considered safe and effective, some people may experience side effects. The most common side effects include nausea or vomiting, restlessness, itchy skin, slow breathing, constipation, heavy sweating, and sexual problems.
More serious adverse reactions include lightheadedness and fainting, chest pain, fast heart confusion, and hallucinations.
Buprenorphine is an opioid partial agonist approved by the FDA for the treatment of opioid addiction. The medication works by producing effects such as euphoria at low doses. Compared to methadone, buprenorphine exhibits weaker effects. Buprenorphine is prescribed to decrease the effects of physical dependence on opioids such as cravings and withdrawal symptoms. Also, it has a lower potential for misuse.
Interestingly, buprenorphine is the first medication for OUD that can be prescribed and dispensed by physicians in their offices. This increases a patient’s access to the treatment. Buprenorphine is particularly useful for persons who don’t have access to methadone clinics or for whom methadone isn’t the right solution.
To begin treatment with buprenorphine, a person needs to be in a state of withdrawal. The length of time for buprenorphine use varies from patient to patient. Some people may need to use it indefinitely.
Side effects associated with buprenorphine include constipation, headache, nausea, dizziness, vomiting, fatigue, drowsiness, sweating, tooth decay, dry mouth, muscle aches, sleep problems, fever, tremors, and palpitations, dilated pupils, and decreased attention.
More serious side effects are unlikely, but they may include respiratory distress, adrenal insufficiency, dependence, withdrawal, and overdose.
Naltrexone is an opioid antagonist approved by FDA to treat opiate abuse as well as alcohol use disorder. It works by binding to opioid receptors to block the euphoric or sedative effects of opioids like morphine, heroin, and others. That way, naltrexone decreases and suppresses cravings and withdrawal symptoms. Since it’s not an opioid, there is no potential for abuse, SAMHSA confirms.
Practitioners licensed to prescribe medications administer naltrexone, which is available as an extended-release intramuscular injectable for patients with opioid addiction.
Common side effects of naltrexone include nausea and vomiting, headache, sleepiness, dizziness, reduced appetite, painful muscles and joints, toothache, and cold-like symptoms.
More serious adverse reactions include severe reactions at the injection site, liver damage or hepatitis, allergic reaction, depression, and pneumonia.
The most effective opiate addiction treatment is psychotherapy, especially cognitive therapy. While MAT is the most well-known approach to the treatment of opioid addiction and methadone shows great success according to a study from JAMA, the importance of psychotherapy shouldn’t be underestimated.
After all, medications are never used alone for the treatment of opioid use disorder. They are always administered in combination with therapy. Evidence confirms that cognitive-behavioral therapy can improve treatment outcomes for patients with OUD who are receiving medications. Basically, therapy can make medications more effective.
Thanks to therapy sessions, patients learn to identify negative thoughts and behaviors in order to adopt more positive attitudes and patterns. This way, they’re more equipped to overcome opioid addiction and prevent relapse.
Therapy is about learning to react to negative stimuli in a healthier manner. Patients also learn more about themselves, which supports their recovery process from signs of opioid abuse.
Also, therapy is patient-centric and customized to the specific needs of each person. Patients with opioid addiction improve employment function and quality of life thanks to regular therapy sessions.
While medications can help with withdrawal and cravings, psychotherapy is vital for every step of the addiction treatment process and beyond.
Ahmed Zayed, MD, is a physician, an author, and a fitness lover, and he has a deep-seated desire to assist others in leading happier and more fulfilling lives.
Dr. Ahmed Zayed, who received his degree in medicine and surgery from the University of Alexandria, is committed to sharing his expertise with his audience and believes that readers deserve accurate information.
Dr. Zayed has the ability to explain difficult ideas in a way that a layperson can understand while still incorporating a scientific perspective into the discussions that surround those ideas.