Opioid abuse remains a serious public health issue throughout the United States. This is, however, an often misunderstood type of addiction, since many people who use opioid pain medication have a valid reason for doing so and abusers often begin due to an appropriately diagnosed medical condition.

About Opioids

Opioids are a type of narcotic pain medication. They’re designed to interact with the opioid receptors on nerve cells in the brainstem, spinal cord, and limbic system to relieve pain.

Commonly prescribed types of opioids and their associated brand names include:

  • Fentanyl: Actiq, Duragesic, and Fentora
  • Hydrocodone: Hysingla ER and Zohydro ER
  • Hydrocodone and Acetaminophen: Lorcet, Lortab, Norco, and Vicodin
  • Hydromorphone: Dilaudid and Exalgo
  • Meperidine: Demerol
  • Morphine: Astramorph, Avinza, Kadian, MS Contin, and Oramorph SR
  • Oxycodone: OxyContin, Oxecta, and Roxicodone
  • Oxycodone and Acetaminophen: Percocet, Endocet, and Roxicet
  • Oxycodone and Naloxone: Targiniq ER

Heroin is also a type of opioid. Many people who begin abusing prescription pain medications eventually turn to heroin to get the high associated with opioid pain relievers at a lower cost. In fact, studies have indicated that as many as four out of five new heroin users started using after developing an addiction to prescription opioids.

Opioid Dangers

When used in a supervised medical setting, opioids are generally considered safe. However, the medication has a potential for tolerance, dependence, and abuse. The negative health effects of long term opioid abuse include a depressed immune system, lowered libido, respiratory difficulties, osteoporosis, abnormal heartbeat, hallucinations, delirium, and increased fatigue. Overdoses can lead to fatal oxygen deprivation.

Responsible Opioid Use vs. Signs of Addiction

Recognizing the signs of opioid abuse presents unique challenges because the medication serves an important purpose. Short term use after an injury or surgery helps patients recover with minimal discomfort.  People who suffer from chronic pain can also use opioids in cooperation with other techniques, such as physical therapy to help keep their pain levels in check so they can go about their daily routine. Some of the many conditions treated with opioids include:

  • Cancer
  • Inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s disease or ulcerative colitis)
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Migraines
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Scoliosis
  • Fibromyalgia

Appropriate opioid use includes the following:

  • Taking medication in the prescribed dose at the correct time
  • Avoiding alcohol or other drugs that could interfere with the effectiveness of the medication
  • Being cautious about driving or operating heavy machinery until you understand how the medication affects your body
  • Keeping medication in a secure location where it’s not accessible by others
  • Refraining from sharing or selling pills
  • Keeping all recommended follow-up appointments with your doctor

Unfortunately, due to the addictive nature of these opioid pain medications, it’s easy to slide from appropriate use into a more serious problem. Signs of potential abuse include:

  • Making excuses to get refills ahead of schedule, such as falsely claiming you lost your medication or had it stolen
  • Seeing multiple doctors to obtain prescriptions for several different types of opioid medications
  • Mixing medications with alcohol or other drugs
  • Buying or stealing pills
  • Requiring an increased dosage over time to get the same effect
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you’re unable to use
  • Lying to friends and family about your use of opioid medication
  • Avoiding hobbies and other activities you previously enjoyed in favor of using
  • Continuing to use despite experiencing negative consequences in your personal or professional relationships

People of all ages, races, and economic classes can develop an opioid addiction. However, women appear to have the highest risk. Research shows that prescription pain reliever overdose deaths among women increased more than 400% from 1999 to 2010, compared to a 237% increase among men during the same time period. In addition to being more likely to seek out prescription pain relievers from a doctor, women are more likely to become physically dependent on the medication due to their smaller size and hormonal makeup.

Treatment for Opioid Addiction

Naloxone, sold under the brand names Narcan and Evzio, has received extensive media attention for its role in treating opioid overdoses. Paramedics, firefighters, police officers, and public safety workers are being trained to administer the drug in hopes of combating the opioid epidemic. However, the best way to fight opioid addiction is to seek treatment as soon as a pattern of abuse is identified.

Treatment programs for opioid addiction provide medically assisted detox and cognitive behavioral therapy to help substance abusers learn different ways to cope with the underlying issues at the root of their addiction. To learn more about treatment options for yourself or someone you love, contact the experienced staff at St. Joseph Institute today.

By: Dana Hinders

WPSU radio station wanted to discuss the increased use of heroin and the inherent dangers.  One of our graduates joined me for the interview and made a great contribution.  Emily was celebrating her third anniversary of sobriety and we are so proud of her.  She is proof that heroin can be beaten and life in recovery can be good!


WPSU Radio Story



Click here to read more of our blog posts concerning heroin and other opiates.

roadtohellNot long ago a mother from Pittsburgh called me seeking help for her daughter. She described a two year journey that began when her daughter started taking prescription meds for knee surgery.  The family assumed the surgery had not gone well when she continued to take pain pills months after the operation, and it was almost a year later that they realized she had become addicted.  The spiral downward continued, as the daughter began to steal, lie and manipulate to pay for her habit — that had changed from pills to heroin.  The family, the mother stated, was now “living in hell.”

The story is not unique to Pittsburgh or western Pennsylvania, but is being lived out in every part of the country.  Addiction to opiates in on the rise, and the number of heroin addicts is estimated to have doubled in the past 5 years.  Some say the number of heroin users has grown even more rapidly in the past 12 months.

There are a number of reasons why heroin has become one of the most common reasons why people come to treatment centers like St. Joseph Institute.

Some of the blame must be placed on our national obsession with pain medication.  It seems that every ache and pain justifies a trip to the doctor for pills that will make the hurt go away.  A few decades ago a doctor would have prescribed rest, greater care when lifting, or perhaps some exercise.  Today our answer is an opiate based medication.  The United States has 4.6% of the world’s population, but consumes 80% of its opiates and 99% of the world’s hydrocodone.

The problem is that opiates are highly addictive.  Some scientists argue that no one can use an opiate for more than 12 weeks and not become addicted.  Consequently, we have a growing population of opiate addicts – teenagers, adults, and seniors.

Once you are addicted, a second problem begins.  The body develops tolerance to opiates, and it takes more and more medication to achieve the same effect.  Rather than the one pill prescribed, the patient takes two, or three, or four.  The doctor’s prescription is no longer enough, and the individual starts finding new sources of opiates — multiple doctors, pain clinics, or on the street.

Now heroin comes into the picture.  An opiate addiction can quickly become very expensive.  The street price is usually more than $1 per mg, leading to a daily habit that can total hundreds of dollars a day.  In contrast, heroin is less expensive, and the dealers have been offering their product for as low as $5 per bag.  It is estimated that 50% of all heroin users are people who switched from pain pills, usually because of the lower cost.

Once you are addicted to heroin, it is very hard to stop.  Addicts will describe the fear of withdrawal, and how they will do almost anything to avoid the symptoms that begin within hours of the last use.  The cravings become increasingly more powerful, and the mind develops a dependence on the heroin to manage emotions and cope with daily life.  Like an octopus, the arms of addiction grab hold of the brain, both physically and psychologically.

freeHeroin is stealing too many people – from Pittsburgh to San Diego, Boston to Miami.  The addict needs help to get them through the early stages of withdrawal, and then treatment to learn how to change their lives in ways that help them live without this powerful drug that has altered the way in which their brain works.

I am so proud of our graduates of St. Joseph Institute that are living free from heroin.  It has been a hard journey and their recovery must be a life-long passion.  But freedom from addiction is possible, and that is the good news I told the mother from Pittsburgh.

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