Over the past decade, conversation surrounding opioids and their use in the United States has dramatically increased. The startling rise in the misuse of opioid prescription pain relievers and opioid overdose deaths has taken over headlines in American media. Reports by government agencies, such as the National Institute on Drug Abuse, have classified America’s drug abuse problem as a severe epidemic that demands attention and a viable solution. Many people that have been prescribed opioids for legitimate pain and then misused those prescription opioids become addicted to these drugs, and the consequences have proven to be fatal.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) continues to research this problem and has uncovered some alarming statistics in relation to opioid use and abuse. NIDA declares that roughly 21-29 percent of patients who are prescribed opioids to treat severe pain misuse them. Between 8-12 percent of those people develop an opioid abuse disorder, and up to 6 percent of those individuals transition to heroin use. Opioids work by attaching to specific proteins in the body called opioid receptors. These receptors are found on nerve cells in the brain, spinal cord, gastrointestinal tract, and other organs in the body. When these drugs attach to their receptors, they reduce the perception of pain and can also produce a feeling of euphoria and a sense of well-being. The latter symptoms are often the appeal for people to continue using opioids.

Opioids can slow down a person’s breathing. An overdose on prescription opioids can completely halt a person’s breathing. There are about 20,000 people that die from this kind of prescription drug overdose every year in this country, and about 75 of them are teens, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Your brain on opioids

There are various different drugs that are classified as opioids. Examples include morphine, hydrocodone, Percocet, and Vicodin are a few of the most common. Heroin is also considered an opioid, but is illegal. The National Institute on Drug Abuse explains that opioid drugs act by connecting to opioid receptors on cells in the brain and throughout the body. Depending on where in the body they are, some of those cells control a person’s digestion, pain, and other functions. The human body already contains opioid chemicals, such as endorphins, which assist the body in relieving pain. When opioid drugs attach to these receptors, they dull an individual’s perception of pain, but do not cure the source of the pain. That’s why they can be so useful for people recovering from serious injuries or intense surgery.

For example, the body releases endorphins during physical exercise. This is a positive mental effect of physical exercise. But opioids also affect the brain’s reward (pleasure) system, which can make people feel euphoric (high). Some people continue taking opioid medications, even though they do not have the pain, just to feel that high. If an individual is taking a prescription pain medicine to get high, that is misuse. This kind of misuse puts people at risk for addiction and other health problems caused by opioid use.

One of the safest ways to prevent opioid addiction is to only take opioid pain medications as prescribed by a doctor, and only for as long as you need them to mitigate feelings of severe pain and discomfort.

What is the difference between prescription opioids and heroin?

Even though heroin is classified as an opioid, it cannot be obtained by prescription. Heroin is injected or snorted and enters the body and brain in a rush. This produces an extreme high that lasts only a short time. Prescription opioids are designed to affect patients more gradually, producing effects of pain relief over an extended period of time. Because of these characteristics, heroin is not a good choice for pain relief.

But sometimes people who want to get high on the drug crush opioid pills to snort or inject the powder, so they can get a more immediate, stronger effect. This provides for a possibility of overdose, which in many cases can be fatal. Once already under the influence of these drugs, the brain craves more of the euphoric effects of the drug, increasing the chances an individual takes too high of a dose and causes and overdose. Some who misuse prescription pain relievers shift to using heroin because it’s cheaper and it can be bought on the street without a prescription.

Treatment of Opioid Addiction

Medical researchers have developed medications to help individuals recover from opioid addiction. Methadone and buprenorphine (branded Suboxone and Subutex) both activate the opioid receptors in the body just enough to prevent an opioid-addicted person from feeling withdrawal or cravings, but not enough for them to experience the high caused by opioid misuse. This medically-assisted treatment (MAT) helps prevent relapse while the brain gradually heals from the addiction. Another medication that a doctor might prescribe to a person addicted to opioids is called Naltrexone (Vivitrol) which blocks opioid receptors completely and prevents the opioid from having its usual effects on the brain. In cases of suspected opioid overdoses, there is a medication called naloxone, which also blocks opioids from affecting opioid receptors. It is often used in emergencies to prevent a person dying from an overdose. Naloxone must be administered quickly to be effective. Combined with other support, such as counseling, these treatments can help individuals plagues with addiction stop abusing opioids.