January 14, 2022

January 7, 2022

How Opioid Addiction Is Different From Other Addictions

Prescription opioids were promised to relieve pain but quickly developed their own epidemic, both in terms of addiction and death. Where do you turn to when the drug expected to help you heal actually harm you more?

Written By

Bailey Forcier-Yake

Bailey Forcier-Yake is an Indigenous freelance writer from the Nisga'a Nation of Northern BC. Her favorite topics to write about are mental health, well-being, and spirituality. Her goal is to raise awareness about mental health issues and help eliminate the stigma that comes with it.

In 2018, Canada had 4,614 deaths that were related to opioid abuse. About 47,590 people in the US lost their lives to an opioid-related death that year. Together, that makes for over 50,000 people who have died due to the same cause. 

So, why aren't we talking about it more?

North America is suffering from an epidemic, an issue that far too many people are unaware of and undereducated on: the opioid crisis.

Opioid dependence is much more problematic than addictions to other substances. Once someone has become dependent on opioids, it can be extremely difficult to stop. Plus, the risk of overdose and death is higher compared to other substances. 

Treatment options exist for opioid dependence; however, they aren't entirely effective and some options have their own downsides. That's why researchers are turning to the use of psychedelics as an alternative treatment option. 

In this article, you’ll learn about what opioid dependence is and how it affects people. You will also learn about what treatment options are available and how psychedelics may be a more positive and effective route towards recovery. 

What Are Opioids?

Opioids are molecules that bind to the opioid receptors in the body. Once bound, they act as powerful painkillers. 

There are three kinds of opioids: 

  • Naturally Occurring Opioids: Often referred to as opiates, natural opioids are harvested from the seeds of poppy plants. Types of natural opioids include morphine, codeine, and thebaine (paramorphine). 

  • Semi-Synthetic Opioids: Deriving from natural opioids and processed in a laboratory, semi-synthetic opioids include hydromorphone, hydrocodone, oxycodone, and the infamous and illegal heroin. 

  • Synthetic Opioids: Binding to the same opioid receptors as natural opioids, these are entirely made of chemicals in a laboratory. Synthetic opioids include methadone and fentanyl. 

Why Are So Many People Becoming Addicted? 

Several factors play a role in the development of opioid dependence. However, a few things can put people at more significant risk of developing one. 

One of the most common causes of addiction to opioids is when a doctor prescribes a patient with opioid medication for moderate to severe pain management.

Unaware of how quickly one can become addicted to those medications, doctors often refuse to raise the dose amount or even refuse to refill the patient's prescription. In attempts to fulfill their dependency, patients may then seek out unsafe, illegal forms of opioid drugs, such as heroin or fentanyl. 

Other Prominent Factors Involving Opioid Addiction 

  • Personal or family history of substance abuse 
  • Low income/poverty
  • Unemployment 
  • History of mental illness
  • Seeking out thrills with risky behaviors 
  • Age
  • Undergoing extreme stress for long periods
  • Having problematic family members or friends

Some people can develop a dependence on opioids very quickly, while others may take some time. The risk is different for everyone and varies depending on genetics, mental state, and living environment.  

What Are the Symptoms of Opioid Withdrawal?

Someone dependant on opioids may experience some or all of these withdrawal symptoms:

Early symptoms (within 24 hours of the last dose):

  • Anxiety and panic attacks
  • Restlessness
  • Muscle and joint aches and pains
  • Lacrimation (teary eyes)
  • Runny nose
  • Overheating and excessive sweating
  • Insomnia
  • Excessive yawning 

Symptoms after a day or two since the last dose:

  • Dilated pupils and light sensitivity
  • Chills and goosebumps on skin
  • Stomach cramps
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Increased blood pressure 

Opioid abuse often leads to mild to severe withdrawal symptoms that can last anywhere between a few days to weeks. People in recovery can even feel the discomfort of opioid withdrawal months after stopping use. The long-term effects negatively impact the ability to recover from a dependence without relapsing. 

How Can Opioid Addiction Be Treated?

Long-term treatment options such as regularly seeing a counselor, going to support groups, and participating in behavioral therapies are beneficial for a successful recovery. However, those don't help with the immediate need to relieve withdrawal symptoms when someone begins detoxing from opioids. 

There are a few medications available to those trying to detox and recover from opioid dependence, but they have some downsides. 

Here are the current medications available to treat opioid addiction and dependence.

Methadone (Dolophine, Methadose)

Methadone is a long-lasting opioid used for minimizing the symptoms of opioid withdrawal. It reduces cravings and discomfort by affecting the same area of the brain as other opioids. Once a proper dosage has been established and is maintained, the user should not get any euphoric high while using it. 

Downside: To receive a prescription for methadone, users have to go to a special clinic. Methadone is rarely given out in doses to take home. To get their daily dose, users need to travel to the designated place to get their prescribed medicine, which can be very tedious. Methadone can also be super dangerous if not regulated and can easily cause overdose or death. 

Buprenorphine (Suboxone, Zubsolv, Buprenex, Sublocade, Belbuca, Butrans, Probuphine)

Buprenorphine is a popular medication prescribed to treat opioid addiction. This medication can be prescribed and given in a shot, skin patch, sublingually, or even placed under the skin as an implant. It's less potent than other treatment options, so overdose is less likely. That is why most doctors prefer prescribing it instead of the other treatment medications. 

Downside: The downside for this medication is that it just isn't strong enough for some users to diminish withdrawal symptoms effectively. It also isn't strong enough to curve intense cravings that people feel during the detox and recovery process. 

Naltrexone (Revia, Vivitrol)

Naltrexone works by blocking the brain's opioid receptors, making the person taking it unable to get high from using opioids. 

Downside: This treatment is only available for people after completing detox and doesn't help ease any withdrawal symptoms or cravings while stopping opioid use. 

Why Are Current Treatments Not Very Effective? 

The problem with the medications used for treating opioid dependence and withdrawal is that they all have significant downsides. They are either not strong enough to mitigate symptoms or cravings, or else they’re so strong that they need to be strictly regulated, making it hard for people to access them when they need them.

Another issue with the medical treatments currently available for opioid dependency is that, in a sense, it's as if an individual is forced to trade one addiction for another. The person trying to recover may begin to feel trapped and discouraged from pursuing sobriety. 

Psychedelics as a Treatment Option 

While current treatments and pharmaceuticals fall short of effectiveness for substance abuse, psychedelics are catching researchers' attention. Some psychedelic substances have fantastic potential for being a favorable, effective treatment option for several wellbeing concerns, including opioid abuse and other addictions and dependencies. 

Ibogaine is an atypical psychedelic that's especially gaining popularity in treating addiction. Some research even suggests that it's the most effective medicinal form of treatment for opioid dependence. 

How the Ibogaine Project Could Be a Game-Changer

MINDCURE has launched the Ibogaine Project, which provides opportunities for research with its development of synthesized ibogaine.

Clinicians and researchers need to have the opportunity to study ibogaine as an opioid addiction treatment as it could improve many people's lives. The goal is to have enough clinical research to make synthesized ibogaine available and more accessible to researchers and clinicians seeking to treat various indications that ibogaine could improve, including addiction. 

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