Understanding Opioid Addiction: What You Need to Know

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By Jessica Allender, LCADC, LCDC III, Assistant Regional Director, Pinnacle Treatment Centers, and Executive Director of NKY Med, an opioid treatment program in Covington, Kentucky

There is an opioid crisis that has been—and continues to—plague our nation. Every year, thousands of people succumb to opioid addiction; some overdosing, some losing their lives from health complications associated with opioid use disorders (OUD).

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), between 21 and 29 percent of people prescribed opioids will misuse them. And of these, around 4 to 6 percent will eventually use heroin. This amounts to thousands of people becoming addicted to opioids each year.

The opioid crisis, which is now an epidemic, began in the 1990s when prescriptions for opioids, in the form of painkillers, increased. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that overdose deaths from prescription opioids showed an increase as early as 1999. In the mid-2000s, overdose deaths exponentially increased, particularly those to heroin. And the increases in overdose death from opioids have continued to climb.

What are Opioids?

Opioids are a class of drugs used extensively in pain management due to their ability to bind with opioid receptors throughout the body. The opioid receptors in your body regulate a multitude of functions ranging from pain, addiction, emotional state, immune function, etc. The very act of synthetically interfering with these receptors is fraught with risk and can throw the body into an imbalance that may result in a dependence on the drug.  As mentioned, the increase in prescriptions of opioids for pain fueled the current opioid epidemic.

Opioid addiction or opioid use disorder (OUD) stems from the very nature of the drug and the strong effect it has on the mind and the body of the individual. While pain management is the initial need precipitating use, the onset of depression, and physical dependence on the drug can quickly take hold and create a vicious circle of addiction.

Once a dependency on opioids has started, it is very difficult for the individual experiencing the opioid addiction to stop using on their own. In fact, it can be dangerous to stop using this drug or any form of this type of drug without medical supervision.

If you, a loved one, or family member is living with addiction, opioid specifically, there is hope, no matter how bleak the situation may look now. Help for opioid addiction is there for anyone who wants it. Taking the first step and reaching out for help to stop opioid abuse may be the hardest but may also be the most important step ever taken.

Opiate addiction is painful, isolating, and full of despair not only for the person living with the drug use but also for the family members who may be trying all they can to help the loved ones in the throes of drug abuse. It’s vital to remember if one of your loved ones or family members has an addiction to an opioid and needs help that neither of you is alone. There is help not only for your loved one or family member but also for you.

How Do You Stop the Opioid Crisis?

As the opioid crisis continues, many may ask how to stop the use of this often deadly drug and stop the abuse of it. One of the best things you can do to manage the risks is to explore alternatives to opioids at the very beginning. Safe use of any opioid is an oxymoron as the addictive properties of the drug are that strong and the chance of addiction to an opioid is also high.

Once already on a medically prescribed opioid, it is vital to follow physicians’ instructions and pay close attention to all symptoms and side effects. The onset of physical and mental dependence on the drug is a key early warning to watch for and communicate with your physician so that he or she may take action to mitigate full-blown addiction.  If at any point in the use of the opioid for pain, you think you—or your loved one or family member—may be creeping towards abuse, seek help immediately.

While opioids have their place in the medical professionals’ toolbox they should remain a last resort. From a patient’s perspective, opioids should be treated with the utmost respect and used for the intended purpose to help them through periods of extreme pain. It’s important to understand that opioid use if it is a must, should only be for a short period of time. Extended use of this drug is not part of the protocol for use and this is where abuse can begin.

Who is at High-Risk for Opioid Abuse?

Addiction to alcohol or any other drug is complex. With interactions between the brain, body, and other factors, why one person becomes dependent on an opioid and another doesn’t to some degree still remains a mystery. However, the likelihood of addiction and the severity of addiction can be somewhat predicted as a complex range of factors that come together to create the perfect storm that is unique to each of us. There are some common risk factors that may predispose you or a family member when it comes to opioid use and misuse. It has been found that a person is more at risk for developing an addiction if they have some of the following conditions:

  • Underlying psychiatric conditions
  • Certain socioeconomic conditions
  • History of substance use disorder  (SUD)
  • Age and maturity level
  • Past history of trauma
  • Family history of drug abuse or use
  • Exposure to drug use at home or school at an early age
  • First use of a drug in adolescence or sooner

There are many who have all of these conditions present in their lives who never become dependent on any type of drug or on alcohol. And the reverse is true as well. Some who begin to innocently use a drug with none of these risk factors will become dependent on the substance.

Symptoms of Opioid Misuse

While no one wants to be living under the cloud of addiction, it can occur based on the situation one finds themselves in and some of the risk factors listed above. Careful observation of the changes taking place in and around you will provide key warning signs to act upon. Often in addiction, there are both behavioral and physical signs and symptoms of addiction that will begin to show. Some of the most common symptoms of addiction are:


  • Social isolation
  • Avoiding family and close friends
  • Changes in mood & emotional state
  • Erratic behavior
  • Irresponsible behavior towards day to day commitments such as family, school, or work
  • Mismanagement of finances
  • Engaging in criminal behavior
  • Loss of interest in hobbies
  • Change in friends
  • Nervousness or irritability


  • Neglected personal hygiene
  • Changes in diet
  • Changes in energy levels
  • Altered sleep patterns
  • Seeming to be very tired
  • Talking fast, very slow, or not making sense

If you or someone you love are experiencing or exhibiting any of these signs of opioid addiction help is just a call away. Remember, every day people living with addiction take the first step and go on to live in long-term recovery leading happy, healthy lives.

However, until someone is in recovery, active addiction can be dangerous. It’s important to watch for signs of a possible opioid overdose.

Opioid Overdose

The risk of an overdose is ever-present with opioids as over time the body builds up a tolerance to the drug. Once addiction has taken hold, the desire to obtain more and more of the drug outstrips any rational thoughts on the risks involved. Some signs of an overdose:

  • Limp and unresponsive
  • Restricted blood flow resulting in blue lips and fingertips
  • Involuntary nausea and vomiting
  • Shallow breathing and slow heartbeat

Seek medical help as soon as possible if you or someone close to you is experiencing an opioid overdose. Many states and counties distribute naloxone (often Narcan) to be used in the case of an opioid overdose. When used correctly and in the right time period it can stop death and brain damage. It’s essential to also call 911 for emergency responders if you suspect an overdose.

How to Reduce Opioid Dependence

As easy as it may seem, simply stopping opioid use after a prolonged period of usage is generally not possible. The resulting withdrawal symptoms can result in excruciating pain and even death if not managed properly via a medically supervised detox and maintenance process.

Some gradual steps can be taken to slowly ween oneself off of opioids in the absence of full-blown physical dependence on the drug. Such steps would include:

  • Setting and adhering to strict limits on usage
  • Keeping close track of usage
  • Occupy the mind and body with sport or hobbies
  • Seek professional help from an addiction specialist
  • Seek the help of friends and family
  • Avoid temptation and keep a positive mindset

Help is at Hand

Despite your best efforts, if you are unable to overcome the hold opioids have on you, worry not. Help is always available and there are many evidence-based treatments and therapies to achieve the ultimate goal of helping one lead a drug-free life.

There are a variety of treatment programs. Often when it comes to opioid addiction residential or inpatient treatment is recommended. In this type of treatment, the individual lives at the treatment facility for a period of time. The length of time varies per person as does the exact course of treatment. Most times, medically assisted detox for opioids is suggested followed by a treatment period at the facility.

Programs of treatment often include both group and individual therapy, medication administration, onsite and sometimes offsite support groups such as 12-step groups like AA and NA, relapse prevention groups, educational groups, health and wellness support, and more.

No matter how dismal your situation (or that of a loved one) may seem, remember there is hope and there is help. Taking the first brave step to recovery is hard but well worth breaking free from opioids.

Call for more information or to get started today.

Headquartered in New Jersey, Pinnacle Treatment Centers is a recognized leader in comprehensive drug and alcohol addiction treatment serving more than 28,000 patients daily in California, Indiana, Kentucky, New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. With more than 110 community-based locations, Pinnacle provides a full continuum of quality care for adult men and women which includes medically-monitored detoxification/withdrawal management, inpatient/residential treatment, partial hospitalization/care, sober living, intensive and general outpatient programming, and medication-assisted treatment (MAT) for opioid use disorder. For more information, visit pinnacletreatment.com or call 800-782-1520.

The materials provided on the Pinnacle Blog are for information and educational purposes only. No behavioral health or any other professional services are provided through the Blog and the information obtained through the Blog is not a substitute for consultation with a qualified health professional. If you are in need of medical or behavioral health treatment, please contact a qualified health professional directly, and if you are in need of emergency help, please go to your nearest emergency room or dial 911.