Opiate addiction, as its name signals, is an addiction to opiates. Opiates are substances that are either extracted from the seeds of the Asian (opium) poppy (natural opiates), or synthesized to have a chemical composition similar to the natural extract (synthetic opiates).
Morphine and heroin are the best-known natural opiates, while oxycodone and hydrocodone are two of the better-known synthesized ones. Both kinds are known agents of opiate addiction. Opiates are very effective painkillers; this is their recognized medical use, and physicians prescribe opiates for this purpose. When taken in larger doses, opiates also provide a strong euphoric feeling – a “high’, or “rush” – and this effect is at the root of opiate addiction.
One of the most popular opiates is heroin, because of its swift action and and high potency. It is a natural opiate refined directly from the opium poppy. Heroin is illegal and has practically zero medicinal use, but is widely available “on he street” under many different names: “smack”, “big H”, “snow”, and the like. In appearance, heroin is a white or brown powder; it is often dissolved in water and injected for a fast result, or may be sniffed in its powder form. Over and above certain opiate addiction, heroin injection has its own significant risks (e.g. sharing diseases with shared needles.)
Of the synthetic opiates, the popular and effective painkiller tablets, OxyContin (R), and Vicodin (R) are among the most common ones. The basic opiate ingredients of these painkillers (oxycodone or hydrocodone) are packaged and sold by many drug companies, often combined with other, non-opioid painkillers, such as aspirin (Percodan (R) for example) or acetominophen (Percocet (R)). Most of these are normally taken in their manufactured tablet form.
Although heroin addiction is the best-known, or most infamous type of opiate addiction, problematic both as an addiction and because it is inherently associated with criminal elements, addiction to painkillers is no less dangerous. In some ways it is more insidious – its dangers are often overlooked: many addicts are not recognized as such and their behavior is excused because they are consuming a legal substance and, in many cases, on the grounds that they receive their opiates from a licensed physician.
Continued use of opiates produces physical dependence and may result in opiate addiction. Physical dependence means that using the substance for some length of time causes physical and chemical changes in the body so that the user ends up feeling very uncomfortable if his (or her) body contains no opiates (somewhat like feeling hungry for food). One common consequence of these changes is habituation or tolerance – the need for progressively larger doses of the drugs – both for mediating pain, and in order to achieve the rush. In addition to such dependence, continued use of opiates, or use in high doses can frequently cause damage to various vital organs including the heart, liver, lung and kidneys.
Opiate addiction is independent of the physical changes – it is a psychological dependence: opiate addicts come to depend on a certain psychological reward – the euphoric state produced by the opiates. Some people can acquire physical dependence on opiate painkillers without being opiate addicted. These two effects also interact – eliminating physical discomfort can be an extra motivator for opiate addicts seeking the euphoric effects of these drugs.
The manifestations of opiate addiction are psychological and behavioral. Opiate addicts, in addition to being physically uncomfortable in the absence of opiates, also suffer acute mental distress and general bad mood without them, and develop an irresistible, compulsive urge to obtain the opiates. A hallmark of opiate addiction is the inability to suppress this compulsion and to moderate or stop one’s opiate consumption even in the face of clear, objective evidence that this consumption is harmful (often acknowledged by addicts themselves).
This inability affects many aspects of the opiate addict’s behavior and reasoning. Opiate addicts will often employ subterfuge to conceal their addiction, will sacrifice family relationships and engage in anti-social or criminal behavior (lying, stealing, embezzling) to support their habits. In addition, as already noted, opiate addiction comes with a very high cost of personal, physical health.
The symptoms described below are indicative and people exhibiting them (or even a majority of them) are very serious candidates for being considered opiate addicts:
- Excessive preoccupation with obtaining a supply of opiates
- Repeated, unsuccessful efforts to stop, or moderate the use of opiates
- Exhibiting signs of tolerance: a need for higher doses over time to achieve the same effect
- Hiding evidence that he or she is using or seeking opiates
- Engaging in denial about opiate addiction (sometimes acknowledging the addiction, but not its social or psychological effects; or maintaining that it is a temporary condition, in spite of evidence to the contrary)
- Sacrificing close emotional relationships with loved ones in order to be able to continue using opiates
- Experiencing difficulties in other social relationships ( a job, or a financial responsibility) as a consequence of drug-seeking behavior
- Showing signs of withdrawal (physical discomfort and other symptoms) on temporarily suspending opiate consumption
- Engaging in “doctor shopping” that is, in attempts to find physicians who will prescribe legal opiates (usually without informing one’s own doctor about receiving “care” elsewhere)
- Exhibiting physical damage characteristic of excessive or long-term opiate use, such as liver damage, infection of the heart lining, pneumonia and other respiratory ailments, etc. as determined by a physician