Opioid Use Disorder: The Steps to Treatment
You may have heard opioid use referred to as an epidemic. This is because a staggering amount of Americans are prescribed opioid-based medication each year. Some of these patients are given opioids for short-term pain management following surgical procedures, others are prescribed opioids for longer-term use, as a way of managing chronic pain conditions.
Some people have no real reason for taking opioids at all, stumbling into them as a street drug and quickly developing a dangerous dependency that negatively impacts their mental and physical health.
Recognizing the signs and symptoms of opioid use disorder early is crucial for a timely intervention. Addressing the issue quickly improves chances of recovery without significant damage to your health, finances, and your personal and professional lives.
If you believe that you or someone close to you may be experiencing opioid use disorder, the best time to act is now.
How Common is Opioid Use Disorder?
The latest survey data from 2018 shows that more than 10 million people aged 12 or older had misused opioids within the year the data was collected. That’s about 1 in every 33 people.
When you’re out grocery shopping or at work, you’re likely around at least two people who have dealt with opioid misuse to at least some capacity.
Up to 29% of individuals who are legitimately prescribed opioid medications for the treatment of chronic pain will misuse their medication. They’ll sometimes take too much, double up on their doses and oversleep, or run out early. When they’re out of their prescription before their refills are due, they often take to the streets in search of more. That’s where the situation becomes problematic.
Up to 12% of these people who misuse their opioid medications will develop opioid use disorder, leading them to obtain more medication by illegitimate means. The habit is expensive, sometimes causing so much negative financial impact that people with the disorder will borrow or steal money from those around them to support their habit.
As many as 6% of people with opioid use disorder will transition to heroin, the strongest opioid available. About 80% of people living with heroin addiction first started with opioid medications, over time finding that the lower strengths of opioids in the prescription medication were no longer enough to sustain their habit.
The Signs and Symptoms of Opioid Use Disorder
Many people with opioid use disorder are often in denial of the extent of their condition. This isn’t because they’re delusional or bad people — many of them are embarrassed of their behavior or in constant fear of withdrawal symptoms. Just like anyone else, they have aversions to pain, shame, and negative emotions and would prefer to avoid uncomfortable situations.
Opioid use comes with side effects, even when taken properly. Opioids are strong drugs that tend to cause disharmony within your body. Some things, like constipation, nausea, sleepiness, reduced libido, increased sensitivity to pain, depression, withdrawal symptoms, and increased tolerance requiring higher dosage of the medication aren’t necessarily indicative of opioid use disorder.
Some people who have a hard time dealing with the side effects that come as a direct result of taking opioids as prescribed may prefer to medically detox from opioids and switch to alternative forms of pain management.
These opioid side effects are typically only considered a part of opioid use disorder when they come in conjunction with other issues that arise with problematic opioid use, such as:
- Financial problems, including trouble paying bills or theft of money from work, family, or friends to fund the street purchase of opioid medications.
- Taking opioids at an uncontrollable frequency, typically in much larger amounts or more frequent doses than a doctor has prescribed or would prescribe.
- Difficulty with proper self care, including unexplained weight loss or the decline of personal hygiene.
- Taking opioids in a way they were not prescribed, such as intravenously instead of orally.
- Frequent drowsiness or significant changes in sleep habits.
If you recognize these signs in yourself or in someone else, it’s time to approach the problem head on.
Taking Your First Step Towards Recovery
The first step towards recovery is locating an appropriate venue for recovery. Discontinuing opioid use without medical supervision can be exceedingly dangerous. Many people who attempt to discontinue use at home ultimately wind up going back to the opioids, as the withdrawal symptoms are taxing and sometimes painful.
Finding an accredited and properly staffed facility to meet the needs of you or your loved one during this challenging time is a crucial first step towards a full recovery.
Medically Supervised Opioid Withdrawal
Some of the symptoms of opioid withdrawal are similar to the symptoms of other conditions. Frequent yawning, goosebumps, anxiety, and trouble sleeping fall on the spectrum of mild withdrawal symptoms.
More serious symptoms often set in after prolonged withdrawal, and these symptoms may require medical supervision:
- Nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting
- Accelerated heart beat, raised blood pressure, and rapid breathing
- Fever, chills, and uncontrollable shaking
- Body aches and heightened perception to pain or discomfort
- In rare cases, seizures
A medical professional will be able to treat or eliminate some of the serious symptoms of opioid withdrawal with medications like methadone or buprenorphine. Both of these medications treat opioid withdrawal symptoms because they are opioids — they simply do not have the psychoactive effects that commonly abused opioids have.
These drugs can be administered safely in a medical setting to prevent or reduce the severity of severe opioid withdrawal symptoms. By slowly scaling back a patient’s dose, withdrawal becomes less of a shock to their system. Eventually, through carefully managed care, patients are able to stop using these medications altogether and can remove all opioids from their lives.
Rehabilitation to Build New Habits
While completely removing opioids from your system is the cornerstone of recovery, it only addresses one aspect of addictive behavior. The physical dependence on opioids may be gone, but it’s easy to return to opioid use if the cause of the matter is not addressed.
Many people turn to opioids to dull emotional pain or avoid distressing situations in their lives, feeling that opioids provide an escape. If the cause of that desire isn’t addressed and remedied, chances are high that patients may return to opioids and undo the progress they’ve made.
A worthwhile treatment plan will always include strategies like individual and group therapy. Group therapy sessions help to make opioid use disorder sufferers feel less alone. Opioid use disorders are shockingly common and often lead to social isolation. Patients in recovery are introduced to others who understand what they’re going through, creating a sense of empathy that may have otherwise been missing.
In group therapy, patients are encouraged to share their thoughts, feelings, and experiences with opioid use disorder without the fear of judgement. Everyone in the room shares the same unique struggle and deserves the opportunity to feel less alone.
Unique or more personal situations can be discussed in individual therapy. If there are things you aren’t comfortable discussing with the group, they can always be addressed in a one-on-one session. Some people feel better discussing issues in an individual session helps them better communicate with the group, while others might feel like sharing small details with the group makes it easier to discuss their feelings in depth during an individual session.
Changing Your Life for the Better
No one finds the end of their journey on the day they leave their treatment facility. This isn’t where your treatment ends, it’s where you become responsible for managing your own progress in the outside world. Some patients reach this level of recovery sooner than others. It’s always best to work at your own pace, rather than to try to beat the clock and leave treatment before you’re ready. You want lasting results, not a temporary fix.
The next step is going back out into the world free and clear of opioids with healthier perspectives. Patients should continue therapy for as long as they need and avoid situations that may tempt them to revert to opioid use.
This can mean pursuing a healthy hobby, like painting, yoga, or martial arts, to make new friends. It might mean moving into a new apartment, away from old roommates or bad areas of town that serve as constant reminders of opioid drugs.
You get to choose who you are, because opioids will no longer define you.
Recovering from opioid use disorder involves permanent and sustainable life changes that require patients to take control of their physical and emotional health.
If you’re struggling, you need to understand that you are worth the work. You deserve to take care of your mind and your body. You deserve to be heard, happy, and healthy.
You just need to take that first step in the right direction. It will be an uphill battle, but in the end, you’ll win yourself back.