What Is Opiate Abuse?
The first thing to understand about opiate abuse is that addiction to opiates isn’t a sign of weakness or a lack of moral character, and no one sets out with the express goal of becoming addicted to opiates. Opiates are a class of drugs that bind to opioid receptors in the brain, reducing sensations of pain. Some additionally increase sensations of pleasure and relaxation. This makes them powerful pain relievers, but also highly addictive. Natural compounds are called opiates and include morphine, codeine, and heroin, while synthetic compounds are referred to as opioids and include Methadone, Vicodin, Percocet, and OxyContin.
When used in the short term to manage pain under the direction of a medical professional, both opiates and opioids are a safe and effective medical tool. However, overuse actually changes how the opioid receptors bind to incoming opiates, creating dependence and requiring the user to take higher and higher dosages to get the same effect. It can also affect how a person is able to experience pleasure and relaxation without the drug, compounding the addiction. Further compounding the problem is that opiates and opioids are relatively easy to obtain, as they are cheap highly over-prescribed by many medical professionals.
In the short term, opiates bind to the opioid receptors in the brain to release a flood of dopamine. When most people think of dopamine, they think of pleasure. While it is true that the release of dopamine causes pleasure, that is only half the equation. Dopamine also serves as a positive reinforcement, signaling to the brain that this is a behavior that should be repeated. While this is beneficial when it comes to healthy activities like exercising and eating a good meal, it is harmful when your own brain is encouraging you to repeat harmful behaviors such as opiate abuse. Opiates are extremely effective at creating this connection and can become addictive in as little as three days.
The long-term effects of opiate abuse are not pleasant. Overuse can cause digestive complaints such as nausea, bloating, constipation, and bowel perforation. Many prescription opiates are combined with acetaminophen, which can cause liver damage when taken too much. Most concerning is that opiate abuse can cause brain damage—the opiates slow your breathing, which over time can starve your brain of the oxygen it needs. Injecting the drug carries it’s own long-term risks, with IV drug users having a higher risk of contracting HIV.
Going Cold Turkey: The Opiate Withdrawal Timeline
Going without opiates once an individual has developed a dependence on the drug can lead to painful withdrawals, which provides another incentive for opiate abusers to maintain the habit. It also makes recovery complicated. Since withdrawals can be severe, immediately halting opiate use is not typically recommended as an effective recovery approach. Instead, most rehab facilities use a taper off approach paired with medications to reduce the withdrawal symptoms.
How long an opiate abuser experiences withdrawal depends on factors such as how long they have been abusing opiates, which opiate they are using, and how high of a dosage they use, but withdrawal symptoms do tend to follow a certain timeline. Within the first 24 hours, a person will experience restlessness and anxiety, insomnia, excessive yawning, watery eyes and a runny nose, and achy muscles. After the first day, the symptoms get more intense. They will start to experience an accelerated heartbeat, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal cramping, excessive sweating, and high blood pressure.
The symptoms start to improve after about 72 hours or up to a full week. After that, the worst has passed, but the withdrawal period isn’t quite over. For the next few months up to two years, the symptoms become more psychological in nature, including insomnia, irritability, mood swings, anxiety, low energy, and depression. As recovery continues, these episodes gradually become less and less frequent.
Getting Help: Recovery the Right Way
Addiction is hard and no one said that recovery would be easy. In fact, the road to sobriety can be quite difficult, considering the uncomfortable and even painful withdrawal symptoms. Opiate abuse literally changes the brain, so recovery isn’t as simple as saying “I am not going to take opiates anymore.” However, with the proper help and support, you or your loved one can overcome opiate abuse.
Many addicts benefit from hearing from others who are on the road to recovery in support groups such as Narcotics Anonymous. They can see that recovery from opiate addiction is indeed possible and they get support along the way from individuals who truly understand what they are going through, and all through a lens of kindness and compassion rather than blaming and shaming.
Some recovery programs also encourage the use of alternative drugs such as methadone to help wean off the opiate and mitigate the symptoms of withdrawal. This can be beneficial, but it does carry some risk as these drugs can also be addictive.
Lastly, some opiate abusers can benefit from professional psychological treatment. Many become addicted to opiates because the sensation of artificial pleasure can provide an escape to their real-life problems, but in the end, the escape is just an illusion. Professional psychological treatment can help get to the root of the addiction and teach coping skills to manage the cravings so that you or your loved one can make a more meaningful recovery.