The Dual Nature of The Opioid Addiction Epidemic – Opiate Addiction is Just one Piece of the Puzzle
Even after all the press that the national opioid addiction epidemic has raised, it is still thought that opiate addiction is the biggest part of the problem. However, in order to fully understand what we’re dealing with when it comes to this problem, as well as find solutions, we have to get to a greater understanding of the situation in general.
What many people don’t really understand is how deep the opioid crisis really runs. We don’t really get what’s causing it to be such a far-reaching problem. If it were just an addiction to heroin, the problem wouldn’t get the press that it currently does, and it wouldn’t be considered to be such a huge issue. Opiate addiction has, after all, been around for thousands of years. Societies deal with it, but in general, the population as a whole isn’t dramatically affected by it.
So, why the dramatic change? What’s really going on in the opioid addiction epidemic and why is it so hard to fight?
The Different Types of Opioids
The first thing to understand about opiates and opioids is that there is a difference. Not so long ago, opioids referred to the synthetic medical cousins of opiates. These days, there are actually four different classes of opioids.
- Opium alkaloids. This is morphine and codeine. These are actually derived from opium.
- Semi-synthetic opioids. These are heroin, buprenorphine, and oxycodone.
- Fully synthetic opioids. This would include methadone. The structures are completely unrelated to opium alkaloids.
- Endogenous opioids. Those endorphins that people experience when something makes them feel good, like during childbirth or sex are considered to be naturally occurring opioids. The brain needs them to find joy and happiness. Many people become addicted to the good feelings that endorphins can produce.
It’s important to understand the different types of opioids in order to understand what’s happening with the epidemic in the United States.
The next step is to understand what an opioid is of any kind. It might seem complicated, but it’s not. See, the body has what is known as opioid receptors in the brain and the intestinal tract. In nature, these receptors have served our species well. When our bodies release endorphins, it helps to relax us, make us feel better, and actually blocks some feelings of pain.
Opium and all of it’s related and non-related counterparts, has a much more intense effect on the brain and body. Opioids of all kinds help to block the pain signals that the nerves send to the brain, and for this reason, opioids are used to treat severe or chronic pain in many people.
The human body cannot produce enough endogenous opioids to create an intense high or cause an overdose. It also cannot produce enough to fight intense or chronic pain. However, the opioid receptors in the brain are highly receptive to things that seem like opioids, and, since it feels good, many of us simply cannot get enough.
Getting high from opioids tends to have similar effects all across the board. People who experience it have said that they feel incredibly joyful, comforted, and accomplished. It’s not like being drunk or having smoked a joint. It’s more like being in a completely relaxed, happy state.
Understanding Addiction as it Applies to Opioids
The next thing we need to do when looking at who is affected by opioid addiction, and who is affected by opiate addiction, we have to learn what it really means to become addicted to anything. Addiction itself is a multi-faceted problem. It is when the body becomes dependent on something – in this case opioids – and when the mind becomes emotionally attached to it at the same time.
So, the person who has to take prescription pain medication but simply cannot stand having to, might develop a physical dependence. This can be overcome by stepping down the dosage of the medication, to help offset potential withdrawal symptoms. This same person will not develop a full addiction because of the lack of emotional attachment to these pain medications. You will often find this situation when a person has pain that is well-managed, or who hasn’t had to take prescription pain medications for very long.
The addiction situation might be the young adult who started taking prescription pain medications to have a good time. In light of all her real or perceived problems, the oxycodone tablets offered a blissful reprieve. So, she keeps taking them. Over time, she not only develops a physical dependence and tolerance to these pills, she has also become emotionally attached to the way they make her feel.
In this case, addiction is not only likely, but some say that it’s nearly inevitable. Addiction can happen to anyone, though. It simply cannot happen without abusing substances. If you’re not abusing opioids, you’re not taking them for any purpose but to ease the pain, and are much more likely to address breakthrough pain with your healthcare provider than if you take more than needed because it makes you feel good.
Who’s Affected by the Opioid Addiction Crisis and Why
Now it’s time to take a look at the broad issue of the opioid addiction crisis in the United States. Why are so many people affected by this type of addiction, and which is worse – opiate addiction, or opioid addiction?
It depends on how you look at things, and where you feel the lines should be drawn. Is the young adult who hasn’t yet had a chance to live life and become a productive part of society more important than the middle-aged or older person who suffers pain? These are the two groups of people who have been so profoundly affected by this crisis, and it turns out that things probably started out much the same for both of them.
- Middle-aged and elderly taking pain medications. There is no denying that the “baby boomer” generation is one of the largest that the world has ever seen. In fact, they are one of two huge groups of the population today. They are, unfortunately, aging, and chronic pain, injuries, and illnesses are causing a lot of them to be prescribed painkillers to take long-term. The group who revolutionized “living your way,” is now being faced with some seriously depressing issues. From divorce, deaths, loneliness, financial troubles, and stress they would rather not feel, this group is statistically no stranger to getting drunk and high. It’s fairly common for middle-aged and elderly people to take a little extra painkiller to enjoy the emotional benefits, as well as the pain fighting perks.
- Late teens and young adults. Extreme competitiveness has caused many in this age group to experience significant sports injuries that often require prescription painkillers while they are treated and heal. Add that to things like wisdom teeth being pulled, and you’ve got just a couple of the many reasons that young adults are initially exposed to opioids of any kind. Some suggest that too many of these cases don’t require the potent prescription opioid painkillers for so long, or at such high doses, though, and it could be part of the problem. Abuse of opioids for leisure accounts for an even greater percentage of this group and is also part of the reason why these people turn to heroin over time, and why opiate addictions develop.
To add insult to injury, the older adults who become addicted to opioids are more likely than their younger counterparts to stay on them and need ever-increasing dosages of them because they usually have better insurance and are better able to afford to keep taking the prescription painkillers.
Who’s Really to Blame
There are those who would like to blame the people who are addicted to opioids for making bad choices. There are those who try to point the finger at those who move on to using substances like heroin and adding fentanyl to the mix for the ever growing opioid problem. Then, there are those who like to say that if people can’t seem to find a way to deal with their pain without painkillers, then they are at fault.
Some will even say that those who take prescription painkillers legitimately but have the stolen from them by the younger people they know are at fault.
The truth is, the Opioid addiction crisis is bigger than all these things. It’s a result of doctors who are overwhelmed by the majority of their patients suffering from pain, and not enough resources to monitor every single case on an individual basis. It’s a result of overprescribing practices by some doctors in an effort to make more money. It’s also a result of a lack of education about opioids of all kinds and the effects they can have on a person and the families of addicts.
Others blame the makers of the opioids for the crisis, and they may be right. Recent changes to formulas have caused a surge in the number of heroin addictions. Recent prescribing regulations have even further driven the opiate addiction numbers up.
Opioid addiction and opiate addiction is multi-layered. That doesn’t mean that it should be ignored, and it doesn’t mean that we should waste our time punishing people for that which they cannot, ultimately, control. We live in a society where our healthcare providers are worth of trust, even when they are not. Unfortunately, too many fall victim to prescribing practices that are not well monitored or thought out, and suffer the consequences of it.
If you or a loved one suffers from an opioid addiction, isn’t it time to get help? Why risk an overdose when you don’t have to? Give us a call, and we’ll help you find the treatment program that you can feel good about getting into.