Opiate dependence is caused by persistent use of opiates and is thought to be a disorder of the central nervous system. Opiates are powerful painkillers that cause sedation and euphoria and are commonly abused. These include oxycodone, Suboxone, Fentanyl, Dilaudid, heroin, Norco, hydrocodone, methadone, and Vicodin. Once opiate addiction sets in, many  users feel completely powerless and continue to use despite potentially dangerous or life-threatening consequences. Unlike some drugs, which can elicit one or the other, opiates can cause both addiction and physical dependence.

Opiate Addiction VS Opiate Dependence

Although sometimes used interchangeably, the terms “addiction” and “dependency” are clinically thought of as two separate things. The National Institute of Health says drug addiction is present when a person compulsively uses a drug despite negative and dangerous consequences and effects. A physical drug dependence means a person needs the substance to function and can have intense cravings, according to the organization.

Opiate dependence does not always entail opiate addiction. The American Academy of Pain Medicine, the American Pain Society and the American Society of Addiction Medicine, in a collaborative effort, have adopted the following definitions:

  • Addiction: “Addiction is a primary, chronic, neurobiological disease, with genetic, psychosocial, and environmental factors influencing its development and manifestations. It is characterized by behaviors that include one or more of the following: impaired control over drug use, compulsive use, continued use despite harm, and craving.”
  • Physical dependence: “Physical dependence is a state of adaptation that is manifested by a drug class specific withdrawal syndrome that can be produced by abrupt cessation, rapid dose reduction, decreasing blood level of the drug, and/or administration of an antagonist.”

Opiate addiction is commonly described as a disorder cause by an untreated opiate dependence, with a strong potential for relapse. This means opiate users who are trying to get well, may fall back into old patterns of drug use and abuse. Because opiates are so potent, they have a particularly high relapse rate. Strong cravings and other opiate withdrawal symptoms can trigger relapse if not well managed, even after a period of abstinence.

Drugs That Fall Into Opiate/Opioid Category

Actiq Buprenorphine Codeine Darvocet Darvon Demerol
Dihydrocodeine Dilaudid Duragesic Fentanyl Fentora Heroin
Hydrocodone Kadian Lorcet Lortab Methadone Morphine
MS Contin Norco Opana Opium Oxycodone OxyContin
Percocet Percodan Roxicodone Stadol Suboxone Subutex
Tramadol Tussionex Ultram Vicodin Vicoprofen Xodol

Opiate vs. Opioid

Opiates are naturally derived from the poppy plant, which contain opium. Opioids are synthetic or partly synthetic, which means that they are manufactured through chemical synthesis instead of the poppy plant. Opioids can act similarly as opiates in the human body.

The Opiate Addiction Epidemic

Opiate addiction has become a national epidemic. According to the CDC, in 2010, 1 in 20 people in the United States was reported using prescription painkillers for non-medical reasons and nearly 15,000 people die every year due to prescription opiate overdoses. In addition, deaths from opioid painkillers surpassed those caused from all illegal drugs.

Symptoms of Opiate Addiction

  • A compulsive desire to take the drug
  • Difficulty controlling opiate use
  • Experience of physical withdrawal symptoms when opiate intake is stopped or reduced.
  • Increased tolerance to the drug, resulting in increased dosage in order to achieve effects originally produced by lower doses
  • Increased focus and time taken to obtain or take the drug
  • Continued drug use regardless of harmful consequences

How Opiate Addiction Occurs

Opiates elicit their powerful effects by activating opiate receptors that are widely distributed throughout the brain and body. Two important effects produced by opiates are pleasure (or reward) and pain relief. The rush of pleasure and reward or relief from pain is so strong and powerful; it can lead to opiate abuse and addiction.

The brain itself also produces substances known as endorphins (the body’s natural painkiller) that activate the opiate receptors. Research indicates that endorphins are involved in many things, including respiration, nausea, vomiting, pain modulation, and hormonal regulation. After prolonged opiate use, the nerve cells in the brain, which would otherwise produce endorphins, cease to function normally. The body stops producing endorphins because it is receiving opiates instead. The degeneration of these nerve cells causes a physical dependency to an external supply of opiates. Abrupt or sudden abstinence from opiates induces yet another traumatic disorder – withdrawal syndrome. This also leads to addiction. Learn more about opiate addiction and brain chemistry.


opiate addiction

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