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Opioid Epidemic

Clinically Reviewed by Linda Whiteside, LPCC

Medically Reviewed by: Dr. Ryan Peterson, MD

The Opioid Epidemic in the United States

Table of Contents

Opioid Epidemic in The United States

The drug overdose epidemic in the United States continues to be a major health concern. According to statistics provided by the CDC, approximately 63,000 Americans died of drug overdoses. Of those deaths, nearly two-thirds were attributed to opioid drugs. With 115 people dying per day due to overdoses, the nation’s opiate and opioid epidemic has garnered widespread media coverage and attention from addiction specialists and lawmakers.

This article will further explore the opiate and opioid crisis in America. First and foremost, it is important to distinguish similarities and difference between an opiate and opioid drugs. While both types of drugs are similar in their effects on the body and mind, they have different chemical composition. Additionally, the article will explore the signs of opiate and opioid addiction, treatment options and what you can do to get help if you or a loved one are addicted to these potent drugs.

A Brief Review of Opiate and Opioid Drugs

In a previous article, distinct differences were drawn between an opiate and opioid drug. For a simple review, we will look at these differences in broad detail. Opiate drugs such as heroin and morphine are derived organically from the opium plant. Opioid drugs are synthetic drugs that are created by chemists and scientists in the controlled environment of a laboratory. Examples of opioid drugs include OxyContin, Percocet, and Vicodin.

What is an Opioid Epidemic?

Both opiates and opioids produce powerful narcotic effects. When administered, these drugs act on the brain’s opioid receptors. These drugs promote the release of endorphins as well as the neurotransmitter dopamine. These essential brain chemicals help regulate the sensations of pain and how we tolerate pain. These drugs produce intense feelings of relaxation and euphoria. However, opiates and opioids have a high addiction potential.

The Signs of Opiate and Opioid Addiction

Both opiates and opioids have profound effects on the body and brain. Both drugs affect three specific areas. First, these drugs act on the limbic system which regulates emotions. The second brain area affected by opiates and opioids is the brain stem. The brain stem is crucial in autonomic body functions such as breathing and heart rate. The third brain part affected by these drugs in the spinal cord which regulates how people feel sensations.

Since opiates and opioids affect these areas, the signs and symptoms of abuse and addiction can be seen physically as well as psychologically and behaviorally. The following are the most common symptoms seen in all three domains:

Physical Signs and Symptoms

  • Constricted blood vessels
  • Increased heart rate
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Decreased appetite
  • Increased agitation and irritation
  • For those taking opiates such as heroin where needles are used, users can show track marks on the arms, legs and anywhere else where major veins are present.
  • Sores and abscesses due to collapsed veins
  • Sores and abscesses due to collapsed veins

Psychological Symptoms:

  • Increased general anxiety and increased anxiety attacks
  • Euphoria
  • Risk of psychosis
  • Hallucinations
  • Lowered motivation

Behavioral Symptoms:

  • Increasing isolation and withdrawing from family and friends
  • Loss in interest in activities and hobbies
  • Stealing from family or other loved ones
  • Pawning of items of value to continue their drug habit
  • Increased “doctor shopping” or going to multiple doctors in order to obtain prescription painkillers
  • Stealing medications out of the medicine cabinets of loved ones or friends
  • Blaming others and rationalizing their abuse of opiates and opioids

How to Help a Loved One Suffering from Opiate and Opioid Abuse

When a loved one is in the grips of opioid or opiate abuse, you can feel a significant amount of hopelessness and powerlessness. You may have tried to address your concerns to your loved one or may have tried to help them find help only to get turned away. While you may feel that you can’t help your loved one get help, it is possible—but there are things to keep in mind:

Recognize when You’re Enabling Your Loved One

First and foremost, do not enable your loved one. Examples of enabling may include paying their rent or mortgage, covering for their absences at family functions, rationalizing their erratic behavior, or trying to bail them out of legal situations. While you may feel you are helping, you are removing the consequences of their behavior. Without feeling these consequences, your loved one will continue to use these drugs and will continue their downward slide.

Be Empathetic

There is no doubt that a loved one’s addiction is taking a significant toll on you and your family. It is completely understandable to feel frustration, resentment, and anger. While it is alright to feel these emotions, you need to try and establish honest and open communication with your loved one. Instead of talking at them, try to actively listen and understand. Oftentimes addicts know they need help but feel trapped in their addiction. If you take the time to listen and feel what they feel, they may be more receptive to your offers of real professional help.

Staging an Intervention

Another way to try and help your loved one is through a preplanned intervention. An intervention allows you, your family and your friends a safe environment to tell the addict how their actions and behaviors have affected their lives. In an intervention, an interventionist will offer the addict treatment options like going to a drug rehab in Los Angeles. If they accept that offer, they will be taken right to the facility. However, if a loved one refuses the treatment offer, they will be made aware of the consequences of their decision.

If you and your family decide on an intervention, it is highly advisable that you seek the help and guidance of an experienced interventionist or addiction specialist. Since emotions can run high, an intervention can be a highly-charged atmosphere. Having a professional help guide the process can help diffuse any potential situation

What Types of Treatment Are Available

Intensive Inpatient Treatment

There are effective treatment options that are available for those struggling with an addiction to opiate and/or opioid drugs. The most effective treatment option is intensive inpatient treatment. With this option, the addict resides and receives treatment at the facility itself. Many inpatient treatment facilities feature housing that offers the comforts of home with state-of-the-art appliances and amenities.

Inpatient treatment features medical detoxification to help addicts better tolerate the often painful and uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms associated with opiate and opioids. Inpatient treatment also features individual and group counseling, 12-step and similar support groups and life and coping skills training. Additionally, inpatient treatment features a wide array of traditional and holistic therapy options.

Experienced treatment staff will create an individualized treatment program for each client which meets their unique needs. For those with underlying mental health issues, many of the premier treatment facilities feature dual diagnosis treatment options. While many inpatient programs run 30 days in length, it may not be enough time for the addict to deal with the underlying causes of their addiction. As a result, many facilities offer programs of 90 days or longer.

Intensive Outpatient Treatment

While intensive inpatient treatment may provide opiate and opioid addicts a better chance at recovery, it may not be the best option. For some addicts, their home and family commitments may not allow them to be away at treatment. For those people, an intensive outpatient program may be a better fit.

In an outpatient setting, those with opiate and opioid abuse issues receive the same quality care and individual attention that better fits their schedule. Those in outpatient treatment can attend programming during day or evening hours. At the start, those new in recovery will go to treatment on average of three-four times weekly for three hours a session. As they progress, the frequency and time commitment decreases.

Sober Living

Whether a person completes an inpatient or outpatient program, immediately jumping back into their normal daily routines may present formidable challenges. Daily stresses create cravings and urges to use substances. To better help newly recovering addicts gain confidence in their recovery, it is highly recommended for the addict to attend a sober living or transitional housing program.

Sober living programs allow those new in recovery to practice the life and coping skills learning in treatment in real time. In sober living, newly recovering addicts that have recently completed treatment live in a house which is managed by the treatment facility. Sober living homes as a whole have less intensive structure. However, less structure does not mean that residents can sit and “wait out their time”.

People in sober living need to be proactive in working their individual plan of recovery. Residents still need to attend 12-step meetings and attend to their work, school and family obligations. For those who are seeking employment or educational opportunities, sober living residences feature resources that will help residents. While there is no set time requirement for living in a sober home, staff will conduct periodic assessments to determine an addict’s progress.

The Journey to Sobriety Starts Today

If a family member or someone close to you is struggling with opiate and/or opioid abuse, now is the time to act. With one phone call to NuView Treatment Center, your loved one can get the tools and support they need to become sober for a lifetime. Our intensive outpatient and sober living programs are effective, proven to work and can be individually tailored to meet their needs

Don’t delay; contact us for a confidential, NO-obligation discussion of treatment options and how we can help get you or a loved one back on track.


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Written By: Linda Whiteside

Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor who has been providing mental health services for over 10 years.

Medically reviewed by: Dr. Ryan Peterson

Went to medical school at The George Washington University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C.

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