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Opioid Treatment


The term “opioid epidemic” cannot be understated enough when talking about the crisis facing the U.S. right now.

Opioids are now the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 50. Every day, more than 90 Americans die from an opioid overdose. To put that in perspective, more Americans are dying of opioid overdoses each year than were killed during the Vietnam War.

For every opioid overdose death that is accounted for, there are numerous others who are still living, but doing so in the difficult cycle of addiction. Fortunately it doesn’t have to be that way forever. Thanks to medical studies and breakthroughs there are a lot of promising treatment options for those struggling with opioid addition. But to understand opioid treatment, it’s important to first understand opioid addiction and how it works.

No One is Immune to Opioid Addiction

Opioid addiction—or opioid use disorder—can happen to anyone. Practically everyone who takes opioids is at risk of developing an addiction. Throughout the past decades, opioid-based prescriptions used as painkillers have been very common in the medical world and, quite frankly, readily available as well. Many attribute the current opioid epidemic to overprescribing by medical professionals. In 2015 alone, 240 million opioid prescriptions were dispensed, which equates to one for nearly every adult in America.

What started out as a harmless prescription after a surgery or injury can turn into an addiction because of the powerful affect opioids have on the brain. They trigger the release of endorphins—the neurotransmitters in the brain that boost feelings of pleasure, muting the signals of pain. And while they are effective in drowning out feelings of pain, when taken over time, it causes the body to stop producing endorphins on its own. When that happens, a tolerance or addiction is created because the person taking opioids can no longer feel good without the drug. And when prescription opioids can’t be obtained, many resort to illicit drugs like heroine to get the same high.

Signs of Tolerance or Addiction

Knowing the signs and symptoms of opioid use disorder is crucial to helping a friend, loved one, or even yourself find the proper treatment to correct it. Some of the most common red flags of opioid tolerance or addiction are:

  • Taking more opioids than prescribed or intended
  • Craving opioids
  • Complaints of pain, and taking medication for that pain, even long after the symptoms of pain should have subsided
  • Spending excessive time trying to obtain opioids or recovering from their effects
  • Reducing or giving up other activities for opioid use
  • The onset of social and/or relationship problems with the continued use of opioids
  • Altering the method of opioid intake (crushing pills to snort, swallow, or inject for a faster effect)
  • Withdrawal symptoms when opioids aren’t taken

Treatment Solutions for Opioid Use Disorder

Contrary to popular belief and what is often portrayed in the media, stopping opioid use cold turkey as a way to end addiction isn’t always possible, effective, or necessarily safe for that matter. When a dependence or and addiction to opioids has been formed, stopping them at once all together (like what is promoted in abstinence-oriented treatment) can result in serious detrimental side effects, even death.

Study after study shows that Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) is the safest and most effective treatment for opioid use disorder. Because of the excessive and/or extended use of opioids altering the function of the brain permanently, indefinite or possibly lifelong maintenance is recommended with prescriptions such as:

  • Methadone
  • Buprenorphine (Suboxone)
  • Naltrexone

These medications are formulated to help patients deal with the unpleasantness of withdrawal symptoms. Methadone and buprenorphine, which are similar, hit the same receptors in the brain as opioids but do not cause a high and can ease drug cravings. In other words, it helps patients still have a sense of wellbeing without the high they are addicted to. Naltrexone, on the other hand, blocks opiate receptors and is usually most effective when taken after detox has been completed.

Why Medication Assisted Treatment Works

Addiction recovery is difficult. Relapse is almost an expected part of the process, and anyone attempting recovery is at high risk for it. This becomes problematic, however, when patients have only received psychological support in abstinence-oriented rehab programs. When relapse occurs, it’s often deadly.

Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) promotes stability and sustainability during recovery and has shown to dramatically reduce opioid overdose death rates.

Along with decreased opioid-related overdose deaths, MAT has also shown to:

  • Decrease criminal activity
  • Decrease infection disease transmission
  • Increase social functioning and retention in treatment
  • Improve the outcomes for babies of opioid-dependent pregnant women

Nearly every expert panel and review from organizations like the Institute of Medicine, World Health Organization, National Institute on Drug Abuse, and the Office of National Drug Control Policy consider Medication Assisted Treatment the best possible option for opioid recovery.

Beyond MAT

While treatment for opioid addiction with the assistance of medication is a key for success, medications alone won’t help someone stay sober. A supervised recovery environment, psychological help, and a strong support system all play a crucial role in opioid addiction recovery. Medications can help treat the symptoms of opioid use disorder and withdrawal, but psychological support is important to treat the root cause of the addiction.

With the right tools and professional help, recovery from opioid dependence or addiction is possible. If you or your loved one are ready to work toward sobriety, contact New Choices today to learn about the solutions we offer.

Related: Types of Addiction