Opioid Addiction

Estimated reading time: 32 minute(s)

Prescription drug abuse and dependence have hit epidemic levels in the United States and around the globe. Based on federal data from 2012, an estimated 2.1 million Americans suffered from problems with substance use or substance use disorders (SUD) related to prescription opioid pain medications.

As per the Centers for Disease Control and Statistics, 78 Americans die each day from opioid-related overdose, both due to prescription drugs and illegal opioids like heroin.

Morphine, hydrocodone, codeine, and oxycodone are examples of opioid drugs. Although these drugs are effective at decreasing pain,  even when taken as prescribed, they can cause physical dependence.

In this article, we will learn more about opioid addiction, its various causes, signs, and some important facts and figures.

What Is Opioid Addiction?

Opioid addiction is a persistent (chronic) condition that can result in significant health, economic and social issues. Opioids are a group of drugs that work on the nervous system to make people feel happy and relieve pain. Healthcare providers may legally recommend some opioids to treat severe and persistent pain. Opioids such as fentanyl, methadone, buprenorphine, oxycodone, oxymorphone, codeine, hydrocodone, and morphine are frequently prescribed. Other opioids, like heroin, are prohibited substances.

Opioid addiction is a strong, uncontrollable urge to use opioid drugs even when they aren’t needed for medical reasons. Even when opioids are prescribed and taken as directed, there is a good chance that some people will become dependent on them. Numerous prescribed opioids are abused or diverted. Opioid addicts may prioritize obtaining and consuming these substances over other aspects of their lives, which frequently has detrimental effects on their career and personal relationships. It is unclear why certain individuals are more susceptible to addiction than others.

Opioids change the way the brain works and cause tolerance, which means that the dose needs to be slowly raised to get the same effect. Long-term use of opioids causes dependence, which means that when consumers stop taking the drug, they experience psychological and physical withdrawal symptoms (like diarrhea, muscle cramping, and anxiety). 

Dependence and addiction are not the same things; even though everyone who uses opioids for an extended time will develop dependence, only a small number will also develop the compulsive, ongoing need for the substance that characterizes addiction.

Addiction to opioids can result in life-threatening health issues, together with a risk of overdose. An overdose happens when excessive dosages of opioids stop or slow breathing, resulting in a stupor and death if the overdose is not managed. Both illegal and legal opioids can cause overdose if they are taken in large amounts or with other drugs, especially sleep aids called benzodiazepines.

Opiate addiction and abuse are on the rise, and it is having a significant negative influence on people’s health and well-being as well as the welfare of entire societies.

Statistics from the National Institute on Drug Abuse give a glimpse of the drug abuse pandemic and show how bad its effects are.

Opiate Addiction Stats

The United States is one of the top global consumers of opiates, accounting for over 100 percent of the market for Vicodin (a prescription drug containing hydrocodone) and 81 percent of the market for Percocet (an oxycodone painkiller).

In 2013, there were 207 million opioid prescriptions written in the United States alone.

It is believed that between 26 and 36 million people around the world abuse opiates. This number includes 2.1 million U.S. residents.

At least 14 percent of pregnant women are reported to be administered opiates during their pregnancies.

Between 2000 and 2009, the number of babies born with neonatal abstinence syndrome, a disorder caused by exposure to opioids during pregnancy, went up by 300 percent.

In 2012, over 5 percent of the population over the age of 12 had used opiate medications for non-medical purposes.

In 2010, 82.8 percent of all accidental drug overdose deaths were caused by opiates.

One study found that up to 91 percent of individuals in opioid rehabilitation will relapse. The study also indicated that at least 59 percent of individuals who experienced an opiate relapse would do so during the first week of abstinence, and 80 percent would relapse within a month after departing from a rehab or detox program.

Signs Of Opioid Addiction

Opioids make people feel good, which makes it more likely that they will keep using them even though they are bad for them. Opioid use disorder (OUD) is a chronic condition with potentially fatal outcomes including impairment, relapse, and death. Opioid use disorder is defined as a problematic practice of opioid use resulting in complications or distress, with at least two of the following happening within one year:

  • Abusing medications by exceeding the intended dosage or duration of use.
  • Persistent desire or ineffective attempts to reduce or regulate opioid consumption.
  • Spending a significant number of hours getting, consuming, or recovering from the effects of an opioid.
  • Burning urge or desire to consume opioids, or craving
  • Problems meeting responsibilities at school, work, or at home.
  • Usage of opioids notwithstanding persistent social or interpersonal issues.
  • Abandoning or decreasing activities due to opioid use.
  • Opioid use in physically risky settings, like driving under the influence of opiates.
  • Opioid use despite a persisting physical or mental condition that is likely to have been triggered or exacerbated by opioids.
  • Tolerance (— for example, need for larger amounts or decreased effect with prolonged use of the same quantity) 
  • Opioid withdrawal syndrome or the use of opioids (or a closely comparable drug) to alleviate or prevent withdrawal symptoms.

Why Are Opioids Addictive

Whoever uses opioids runs the danger of developing an addiction. So what causes opioid addiction? 

Your life background and the amount of time you have used opioids play a factor, but it is hard to predict who would become dependent on or abuse these substances. Legal or illicit, stolen or shared, these substances are the leading cause of overdose deaths in the United States today.

Addiction is a state where something that was once delightful begins to feel indispensable. Physicians say that drug addiction is the uncontrollable need for a drug, the uncontrolled and compulsive use of the drug, and the continued use of the drug despite bad effects. Opioids are especially addicting because they stimulate the powerful reward centers in the brain.

Opioids induce the release of endorphins, the feel-good neurotransmitters found in the brain. Endorphins dull the feeling or perception of pain and heighten the feeling of pleasure, which gives you a short-lived but strong sense of well-being. When the amount of opioids in your blood drops over time or when the effects of the dose wear off, you may want those good feelings right away. This is the initial breakpoint on the road to probable addiction.

Opioids are most addictive when they are taken in ways other than those prescribed, such as by smashing a pill to be snorted or injected. If the pill lasts a long time or has an extended-release, this method is much more dangerous. Rapid administration of all medication to the body can result in an unintentional overdose. The risk of becoming addicted to opioids goes up if you take more or more often than prescribed.

The duration of prescribed opioid use is also a factor. Taking opioid drugs for more than a few days raises the chance of long-term usage, which increases the risk of addiction, according to researchers. The likelihood that you will still be using opiates a year after beginning a brief course rises after only five days.

A number of other factors — psychological, genetic, and environmental — have a role in the development of opioid addiction, which can occur immediately or after prolonged use.

In the neurohormonal system, which controls pain, addictive behaviors, and reward systems in the body, there are many genes that are thought to play a role in opioid addiction. It is made up of endogenous opioids and their receptors, which are like locks that opiates can open.

Opioid addiction is a complicated disorder in which environmental factors play an important role. A background of depression, substance abuse, or other psychiatric illnesses; childhood neglect or abuse and certain personality traits, particularly impulsivity and sensation-seeking, have been proven to raise the risk of opioid addiction. Living in poverty and a rural region, interacting with others who abuse opioids or other narcotics, and having instant access to prescription or illicit opioids are also risk factors for opioid dependence. It is believed that genetic variables combine with health, economic, social, and lifestyle factors to influence an individual’s risk.

Opioid Addiction And Dependence: What’s The Difference

Patients are frequently perplexed by the fact that they might be dependent on a substance, such as an opioid, but not addicted to it. Understanding the distinction is critical for patients and caregivers. This is why contemporary scientific literature highlights the distinction between drug addiction and physical dependence.

Physical dependence occurs when the body needs a specified amount of a substance, such as an opioid prescribed by a doctor, to counteract withdrawal symptoms. This often occurs when a patient uses a medication to manage pain linked with a health condition for at least six months. 

During this period, the body develops a tolerance to the drug and becomes dependent on it to maintain the status quo. When a patient is given drugs for this purpose, a doctor watches as the patient slowly stops taking the drugs in a way that reduces the risk of withdrawal and the urge to keep using the drug.

The DSM-5 classifies addiction or substance use disorder (SUD) as an abnormal, persistent, and curable condition. If left untreated, SUD can have devastating, lifelong repercussions. SUD is characterized by compulsive behaviors that manifest as urges, inability to control drug use, and continuing drug use despite adverse effects. SUD can occur independently of physical dependency, but in the case of opioid use, the patient is generally also physiologically dependent on the substance. It is essential to understand and discuss with your prescribing physician the hazards of drug dependence.


Why Do People Become Opioid Addicts?

Opioids can deceive the body and brain that the substance is essential for survival. As you become accustomed to your prescribed dose, you may discover that you need more medication to ease pain or reach a state of well-being, which can progress to dependence. Addiction takes control of our brains in a variety of ways and is far more sophisticated and unforgiving than the majority of individuals know.

How Can You Avoid Addiction To Opioids?

If you or a loved one is thinking of taking opioids to treat pain, it is crucial to talk to a pain medicine doctor or other pain medication professional about using them safely and finding alternative options if necessary. Learn how to collaborate with your doctor or another clinician to use opiates more judiciously and safely, and investigate alternate pain management options.

Resource References:

  1. Opioid abuse: Statistics, signs & symptoms – Made For This Moment | Anesthesia, Pain Management & Surgery. Available at:
  2. Opioid addiction: Medlineplus genetics. MedlinePlus. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Available at:
  3. Opioid use disorder. Available at:
  4. Understanding and overcoming opioid abuse. American Psychological Association. Available at:

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