Opioid Abuse and Addiction

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Opioid addiction is a serious condition that requires professional help and support to successfully overcome. At Guardian Recovery, we offer comprehensive treatment options for those struggling with this condition. Using a range of evidence-based, highly-personalized healthcare services, we are dedicated to helping individuals break free from opioid misuse and regain control of their lives. Contact us today to learn more about our holistic approach to physical, psychological, and spiritual wellness.

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What Are Opioids & How Do They Interact With the Brain?

Opioids are potent analgesics commonly used for their pain-relieving and relaxing effects. They include prescription painkillers, such as oxycodone, and illicit drugs, such as heroin. When opioids are taken in any form, they attach to certain chemical receptors in the brain, spinal cord, and other areas throughout the body. This produces an upsurge of feel-good chemical messengers, such as dopamine, leading to intense feelings of pleasure and reward. Repeated exposure to opioids further reinforces their potential to lead to compulsive drug-seeking behavior. (1)

Can Taking Opioids as Prescribed Cause Addiction?

While recreational misuse of opioids is more likely to result in addiction, even opioids taken as directed for medical purposes can lead to physical dependence and compulsive drug-seeking behavior. This is because opioids activate the brain’s reward system, and prolonged use can cause the body to adapt to the drug and experience withdrawal symptoms upon cessation. This effect is no less true when opioids are taken for legitimate purposes.

How Addictive Are Opioids?

Opioids are highly addictive, and some individuals have reported becoming psychologically dependent on them after just a few uses. However, each person can experience addiction differently because it is a complex disease that results from the interaction of many factors. Factors That Influence Opioids’ Addictive Potential Include:

  • Type of drug used.
  • Whether taken as prescribed or misused.
  • The duration of use.
  • The dosage used.
  • Frequency of use.
  • Genetic predisposition.
  • Existence of co-occurring mental disorders.

How Does Opioid Addiction Develop?

Opioid addiction develops over time, but how long this may take varies significantly between individuals. It typically emerges due to repeated or prolonged use of opioids and is characterized by various phases and factors. Aspects of Opioid Development Include:

  • Initial use, which may consist of having a legitimate prescription or misusing an opioid illicitly.
  • Increased tolerance and escalating use, as the body reduces the impact of opioids and an individual requires increasing amounts to achieve the desired effects. (2)
  • Psychological dependence, consisting of drug cravings and strong emotions perceived as positive associated with the use of opioids.
  • Physical dependence due to altered brain chemistry, leading to withdrawal symptoms. (3)
  • Persistent neurochemical changes, such as impaired decision-making and self-control, due to opioids’ effect on the brain’s reward system.
  • Compulsive use and addiction, consisting of a complete loss of control and continued use of opioids despite adverse consequences.

Causes & Risk Factors for Opioid Misuse & Addiction Development

Opioid addiction is typically the product of many risk factors, such as genetic predisposition, trauma history, or early exposure to substance use. Some individuals have a greater susceptibility to using substances due to innate personality traits, such as impulsivity and pleasure- or thrill-seeking tendencies.  Those with mental health disorders, such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD, may also be more prone to drug use as a means of self-medication. Furthermore, these psychiatric conditions often have underlying risk factors that overlap with those that contribute to addiction. Early exposure to opioids, other drugs, or alcohol can put a person at a higher risk of developing addiction because psychoactive substances alter the brain’s function. This is especially problematic for teens and young adults whose brains are not fully developed and may lack the decision-making skills they need to make healthier choices. Social and cultural environments also play a role in opioid and substance use. For example, people who grow up in families that condone or encourage the use of drugs or alcohol may be more likely to experiment with substances earlier and adopt them as a normal part of their lives.

Demographics Most at Risk of Opioid Misuse

Age, gender, socioeconomic status, and geographic location can increase a person’s risk of opioid misuse. Prior use of prescription drugs and other substances can also contribute to this risk.  Demographics at a Heightened Risk of Opioid Misuse Include:

  • Young adults aged 18–25 may be more susceptible to misusing opioids and other substances than other groups due to their increased levels of impulsivity and risk-taking behaviors. However, older adults, particularly those aged 45–64, were found to have the highest rates of prescription opioid misuse. (4)
  • Men have historically experienced higher rates of addiction to opioids and other substances. Still, opioid use among women has increased in recent years due to higher rates of chronic pain conditions and potential hormonal factors.
  • Individuals from lower socioeconomic backgrounds also face a higher risk of opioid misuse due to income disparities, limited access to mental health care services, and a higher incidence of trauma.
  • Residents of certain geographical locations and communities may have a greater likelihood of engaging in opioid misuse due to factors such as higher rates of opioid prescribing, economic challenges, and limited access to healthcare.
  • Finally, people with a history of misusing prescription drugs or other substances, such as alcohol, may be at an elevated risk of opioid misuse, suggesting that some individuals have a greater vulnerability to addictive behaviors.

Opioid Use & Its Effects on Mental Health

Substance use has a complex and cyclical relationship with mental health. As those with psychiatric disorders are more likely to use substances, the use of those substances tends to worsen their condition over time rather than improve it. Opioid misuse itself can trigger a range of emotional issues, including depression and anxiety, sometimes leading to severe symptoms, such as paranoia and suicidality.

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Can Long-Term Opioid Use Cause Permanent Physical & Mental Damage?

The prolonged use of opioids can lead to permanent psychological injuries due to persistent changes in brain chemistry and functions. These issues are most pronounced in the development of addiction but are also associated with impaired cognition and memory over time.  Opioid misuse can also inflict damage to many bodily organs over time, including the liver and kidneys. It can likewise lead to cardiac arrest and respiratory failure, potentially resulting in brain damage due to temporary oxygen deprivation.

Signs Someone May Be Addicted to Opioids

There are many signs to look for if you suspect someone you know is suffering from opioid addiction. These can be behavioral, psychological, or physical. These signs may indicate an opioid use disorder, and seeking professional help is critical. Outward Behavioral Signs of Opioid Addiction Include:

  • Increased use of opioid medications.
  • Doctor shopping and multiple attempts to get early Rx refills.
  • Preoccupation with obtaining and using opioids.
  • Social withdrawal or spending time with a new circle of friends.
  • Increased need for secrecy.
  • Neglect of responsibilities and decline in work or academic performance.
  • Poor personal hygiene and unkempt appearance.
  • Loss of interest in social or enjoyable activities.
  • Financial challenges due to money spent on opioids.

Physical & Psychological Signs Include:

  • Constipation.
  • Unexplained weight loss or gain.
  • Slurred speech, droopy eyes, and general appearance of being “high”.
  • Persistent drowsiness and sedation.
  • Withdrawal effects, such as nausea, vomiting, tremors, restlessness, and flu-like symptoms.
  • Impaired coordination.
  • Anxiety or panic attacks.
  • Depression.
  • Impaired cognition, concentration, decision-making, and judgment.
  • Mood swings, irritability, and agitation.

What Should You Do if Someone Overdoses on Opioids?

An opioid overdose requires urgent medical attention to save a person’s life, so it is critical to immediately notify emergency medical responders who can administer naloxone. While waiting for help to arrive, follow any instructions you’ve been given, such as performing life-saving support efforts like CPR.

Statistics for Opioid Misuse in the U.S.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, in 2019:

  • More than 10 million people engaged in past-year prescription opioid misuse.
  • Approximately 1.6 million people had a past-year opioid use disorder
  • More than 48,000 deaths were attributed to synthetic opioids other than methadone.
  • 745,000 people reported past-year use of heroin
  • 50,000 people used heroin for the first time.

In the 12-month period ending June 2020, there were 14,480 deaths attributed to heroin overdoses. (5) According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the estimated cost of the opioid epidemic in 2018 was $1.04 trillion, $985 billion in 2019, and $1.5 trillion in 2020. (6)

Treatment Options for Opioid Misuse & Dependence

There are numerous treatment and rehab options for individuals experiencing opioid misuse and dependence, such as medical detox, medication-assisted treatment (MAT), behavioral therapies, and more.

Medical Detox

In medical detox, the typical first step in treatment, patients are supervised 24/7 through a safe withdrawal process, while being administered MAT to help manage cravings and reduce withdrawal symptoms.

Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT)

Common medications used in MAT include naltrexone, methadone, and buprenorphine. They target the brain in a similar way to other opioids but do not induce feelings of reward or being high. These medications can be taken for years if necessary to minimize cravings and reduce the likelihood of relapse. Buprenorphine and methadone can be started immediately, but you may need to wait up to ten days before you can take naltrexone.

Evidence-Based Therapies & Counseling

Therapies and counseling for opioid misuse can help individuals alter their behaviors related to substance use and develop healthier coping skills to replace former dysfunctional strategies used to cope with stress and triggers. These commonly include cognitive-behavioral therapy, motivational enhancement therapy, contingency management, and group and family counseling.

Residential & Outpatient Programs

Residential (inpatient) programs combine treatment services with short- or long-term housing, including overnight. In these programs, individuals live among peers who are also receiving treatment in a secure environment in which they can offer each other support. They also provide round-the-clock medical and mental health care, include structured schedules, and employ various therapies and services. Outpatient programs offer therapies and other similar approaches to inpatient programs, but individuals do not stay in a facility overnight and have more flexibility as they transition back to their day-to-day lives.

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How Guardian Recovery Can Help

Opioid dependence is a potentially life-threatening condition that can lead to long-lasting or permanent damage to one’s medical and mental health. For this reason, it is essential to be able to recognize the signs of addiction and seek professional help for yourself or a loved one. At Guardian Recovery, our team of addiction specialists provides personalized care to help individuals overcome their addictions and minimize the long-term effects on their health. Contact us today and be connected with a treatment advisor to learn more about our streamlined admissions process and full continuum of care.


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Disclaimer: Does not guarantee specific treatment outcomes, as individual results may vary. Our services are not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis; please consult a qualified healthcare provider for such matters.

  1. https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh21-2/132.pdf
  2. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/drug-tolerance
  3. https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/addiction/tolerance-dependence-addiction-explained
  4. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/nhsr/nhsr162-508.pdf
  5. https://www.hhs.gov/opioids/statistics/index.html
  6. https://beyer.house.gov/news/documentsingle.aspx?DocumentID=5684

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Reviewed professionally for accuracy by:

Ryan Soave


Ryan Soave brings deep experience as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, certified trauma therapist, program developer, and research consultant for Huberman Lab at Stanford University Department of Neurobiology. Post-graduation from Wake Forest University, Ryan quickly discovered his acumen for the business world. After almost a decade of successful entrepreneurship and world traveling, he encountered a wave of personal and spiritual challenges; he felt a calling for something more. Ryan returned to school and completed his Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling. When he started working with those suffering from addiction and PTSD, he found his passion. He has never looked back.

Written by:

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Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark grew up in Santa Barbara, CA and graduated from UCLA with a degree in playwriting. Since then she has been writing on addiction recovery and psychology full-time, and has found a home as part of the Guardian Recovery team.

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