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Opioids: What you need to know

Opioids: What you need to know

If you have ever had surgery, you were most likely prescribed Oxycodone, an acute painkiller that contains opioids. 

Many medications that contain opioids are legal and safe when used as prescribed. These include oxycodone, hydrocodone, and morphine. 

However, there are many unsafe and illegal ways to use opioids, such as heroin or misusing or abusing prescription medications.

How do opioids work?

When you have an opioid medication or drug in your system, it binds to opioid receptors attached to nerve endings. When this binding takes place, pain signals to your brain are stopped, and dopamine, a chemical that makes you feel good, can flow freely.

A rush of dopamine minimizes pain across your whole body system, and it creates feelings of calm and euphoria. This is why people are often prescribed an opioid medication after surgery, when pain is intense and in a specific area. 

For a deeper understanding of what an opioid medication does to your body, check out this video from Osmosis

Why are opioids dangerous? 

Like any drug, opioid medications can be misused. But, opioids are much easier than some other drugs to become dependent on, and they are prescribed in large numbers in the United States. According to Osmosis, they are the leading cause of drug-related deaths worldwide. 

Opioid tolerance, dependence, and addiction

Opioid tolerance occurs when your body becomes used to the drug. You need more and more to achieve the same feeling you previously had with a smaller amount, so you continue to increase your dose. 

Dependence is when your body becomes so tolerant to the drug that you have to take it just to feel normal. Your brain maintains balanced levels throughout your body, and it will overcompensate with repeated use of an opioid. Without the drug, your body will feel bad because of your brain’s adjustments. So, the cycle continues. 

This cycle of repeated use is what makes it so hard to stop. Your brain and body react in extreme ways in the absence of the drug once you become dependent. These effects, called withdrawal, can range from depression, chills, hallucinations, and extreme intestinal pain. 

The more and more you take as your tolerance level increases, the closer you get to overdose. Your body can only take so much before it shuts down completely. Relapsing with a smaller dose after treatment or sobriety can also cause overdose. 

It is important to note that once a person is addicted to opioids, their brain has experienced a complete change in chemical function. Addiction is not a moral failure, and should not be treated as such.

The U.S. opioid crisis

The United States has a high rate of opioid prescriptions, and a high rate of opioid misuse. 

In 2017, prescriptions for opioids reached more than 190 million in the United States. That same year, 11 million people reported misusing their opioid prescription, and 45,000 Americans died from an opioid overdose. 

Since then, prescriptions have dropped slightly, as doctors and medical professionals seek alternative treatments for pain. But, the problem still exists. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the opioid prescribing rate in the U.S. hit its peak in 2012 with 81.3 prescriptions written per 100 people. In 2018, that number dropped to 51.4 prescriptions per 100 people. 

While that is an improvement, this still means that almost 170 million opioid prescriptions are written every year in the U.S. With what we know about the rate of opioid addiction, this is too many.

What can we do? 

There are a few things we can do to help slow the addiction rate of opioids, and prevent deaths. 

First, if you or a loved one are prescribed opioids as a painkiller, ask your doctor if there is an alternative medication or therapy you can try first. 

If you are prescribed an opioid medication and use it, never take more than prescribed. Also, never share your medication with anyone, and never take someone else’s medication. 

Learn the signs of opioid dependence

If you or a loved one experience two or more of the following behaviors or symptoms* within a year of using opioids, you are considered to have Opioid Use Disorder:

  • Using opioids for longer than intended
  • Unable to cut down on opioids
  • Using for a significant amount of time
  • Cravings to use opioids
  • Opioid use affects responsibilities
  • Opioid use causes recurrent interpersonal problems
  • Giving up important activities due to opioid use
  • Using in physically dangerous situations
  • Opioid use worsens a physical or psychological problem
  • Tolerant to opioids
  • Withdrawal symptoms to opioids

*Descriptions of behaviors and symptoms derived from DSM-5 Diagnostic Criteria for Opioid Use Disorder.

The more we know about opioids, and the dangers that come with them, the smarter we can be about our decisions and behaviors. This knowledge can and will save lives. 

We’re in this fight against opioid misuse together.

Lauren Stockam

Lauren is the Public Relations intern at Safe and Sober. She is a graduate student at Missouri State University.