Opiate addiction is recognized as a central nervous system disorder, caused by continuous opiate intake.
After prolonged opiate use, the nerve cells in the brain, which would otherwise produce endogenous opiates (natural painkillers, or 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.
Background on Opiate Addiction
Substance abuse is a major health concern in the United States, with annual treatment costs in the billions of dollars. It is also a social ill manifested in family problems, lost productivity, and crime. Heroin, an opiate drug, has been viewed as a key player in this rapidly growing drug-dependent segment of society. While the number of heroin dependents is increasing at an alarming rate, a previously unrecognized opiate dependency is moving to the forefront – prescription painkillers (opiates, narcotics).
Chronic pain sufferers, surgical patients, sickle-cell patients, and cancer patients seeking relief from pain are prescribed pain medication by their physicians and subsequently become dependent.
Opiate Dependent is not Opiate Addict
These people are not “drug addicts” in the stereotypical sense, but people with real medical conditions who find themselves in the same situation as drug addicts. In fact, so addictive are these opiate-based pain medications that despite fully understanding the medications’ addictive nature, ten percent of physicians are themselves dependent on the very drugs they prescribe, according to the Council of Emergency Medicine Residency Directors (CORD).
Opiate dependency was once viewed as a condition with no solution. Patients with opiate physical dependency were considered to have inherited an addictive personality or psychological disorder or to have suffered with a dysfunctional family life. The medical community lacked the desire to find a treatment for what they believed was a hopeless condition and refused to deal with it. Ignoring the problem has had irrefutable repercussions:
- The disease spread over the years, reaching every generation, culture and level of society.
- Dependents accepted their disease as an undeniable essence of their character, with no hope of escaping the agony.
- Excluded from society, dependents fulfilled the stereotypes that society forced them to assume: the role of criminal or social outcast, rather than patient.
- Ultimately, society’s labeling and view of opiate dependents as “criminals”, strips them of their human value; society is then forced to protect itself from some of the same people who have indeed assumed the criminal status that was imposed on them.
The “re-education” of patients and of society as a whole is critical since an effective treatment is now available. Recognizing signs of opiate addiction and/or dependency and understanding the consequences will hopefully motivate patients to seek early treatment before the downward spiraling takes away their jobs, their families, their self esteem and ultimately, their lives.