Are opiates addictive?
Opiates: What’s all the hype about?
Drugs do not discriminate when choosing their prey. As a pharmacist-turned-patient-turned-addict, I’ve learned about addiction from more perspectives than I ever could have imagined. Prescription drug abuse is the fastest growing drug problem in the United States. Symptoms of prescription pain killer abuse include doctor shopping or taking more medication than prescribed. And while opiate drug addiction can be treated with opiate substitution prescribing or through behavioral changes, it is a long and arduous process.
In 2010, enough painkillers were prescribed to medicate every American adult around-the-clock for an entire month. According to the CDC’s Policy Impact: Prescription Painkiller Overdoses report, In 2010, about 12 million Americans over the age of twelve reported non-medical use of prescription painkillers in the past year. Every patient needs to be armed with the knowledge necessary to survive in our pharmaceutically dependent society.
My doctor prescribed them, so I thought they were safe.
I thought so too.
Are opiates safe?
The assumption that opiates are safe because a doctor prescribed them is wrong. Opiate pain medications such as hydrocodone and oxycodone are intended for short-term use only. Unfortunately, doctors prescribe them frequently and allow patients to stay on them too long.
After a hard fall from a grand-mal-seizure, I ended up with a broken nose and sinus surgery. I took prescribed Lortab (hydrocodone and acetaminophen) for two months. When the nasal nightmare was over, I stopped taking the Lortab. Within twenty-four hours I ached and poured sweat, developed a severe headache, and started vomiting non-stop. I thought I had the stomach flu. Since I was in such pain, I took another Lortab, and within minutes, I felt fine. Well, physically I felt fine. Emotionally, I panicked, because in that very moment, I knew I was addicted.
Why are opiates so addictive?
When God created us, he gave us built-in pain relievers, endorphins, which are secreted by the pituitary gland and bind to receptors in the brain when we need them. In instances of severe pain due to an acute situation, opiate pain medications are prescribed by physicians to further bind to those receptors resulting in faster, more complete pain relief. But once the opiate is taken consistently for more than one or two weeks, the brain undergoes changes resulting in physical addiction.
When the receptors on our brains receive an opiate on a regular basis, they send a message to the pituitary gland—no more endorphins are needed. Our pituitary gland temporarily shuts down production of our God-given pain reliever, leaving our receptors hungry. The opiate used for pain relief is now needed just to feel normal. The result? Addiction.
As we continue to feed these receptors the opiate food, which it now requires, those receptors begin to multiply like stray cats under a house. Not only must they be fed consistently to keep them happy, they now require more frequent and larger opiate snacks to keep them full and satisfied.
Withdrawing from opiates: a necessary evil
Once these changes occur in the brain, depriving those receptors of the opiate food they need puts them into attack mode, resulting in withdrawal.
As a pharmacist, I thought my education and experience with prescription drugs were enough to protect me from every falling into the trap of addiction.
I was wrong.
The withdrawal from addiction to opiates affects every fiber of your body and feels like a hopeless battle. If I’d known then why opiates are addictive and how they actually change the chemistry of the brain, I could have avoided addiction. Instead, I had to endure and suffer through it.
Which I did.
What I learned through addiction is invaluable. Addiction is not permanent. It can happen to anyone. It can be overcome, but typically not alone. With the right treatment, determination, and prayer, your brain can return to the normal, healthy brain God created in the beginning.
Photo credit: NIDA