An Introduction to Opioid Misuse

December 16, 2019

The basics about this growing epidemic 

Every day there’s a new headline reporting the seriousness of the ongoing opioid drug abuse and overdose crisis in the United States. 

Here’s an introduction of some of the need-to-know facts. 

By the numbers

In 2018, 10.3 million people misused prescription opioids in 2018

And, an estimated 130+ people die every day from opioid-related drug overdoses. 

Up to 29 percent of patients prescribed opioids for chronic pain misuse them, and up to 12 percent develop a full opioid (substance) use disorder.

In 2018, 51.3% of those age 12 or older who misused pain relievers reported they were given by, bought from, or taken from a friend or relative

About opioid drugs 

Opioids are naturally occurring drugs found in the opium poppy plant or created by mimicking the same chemical structure. They are sometimes known as narcotics. 

These substances bind to the natural opioid receptors in the brain that are involved in our pain and emotions. As tolerance builds, only increased use of the drug will provide feelings of happiness or relief, as the brain has adapted to responding only to these intense stimuli.

There are three main categories of opioids, all which tap into the same receptors in the brain. 

Heroin is widely known as a dangerous and illegal substance, usually injected, smoked, or snorted. Commonly, use of heroin is paired with use of at least one other drug, such as cocaine, alcohol, or prescription opioids. 

Fentanyl’s original creation was for medical use to treat severe pain linked to cancer. The synthetic opioid is said to be 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine. Aside from that given to patients, the market for illegally made fentanyl is on the rise. Some heroin users receive products that are unknowingly a combination of the two drugs. Fentanyl is cheaper to produce, and thus drug dealers can sub-in the substance in place of more expensive drugs. However, because it is stronger than other counterparts, this increases the likelihood of overdose. 

Prescription pain relievers are the most widespread opioid, and includes products like hydrocodone (Vicodin), oxycodone (OxyContin), methadone, and morphine. Often, use of these medications start as a way to address chronic pain – like back pain or osteoarthritis – or following surgery, injury, or cancer treatment. But the brain can quickly become adapted, so even short-term use comes with risk.   Nearly 200 prescriptions of this type were filled for American patients in 2017, and as many as one in four people who take medications on a more long-term basis will develop an addiction. In fact, those addicted to Rx opioids are 40 times more likely to be addicted to heroin. 

Response and Action

The effort to address what many U.S. government agencies have labeled a public health crisis involves a multifaceted approach. 

In part, the onus falls onto drug manufacturers and the medical field, working to advance research and practices around pain management. 

On the public side, there is a push for increased awareness and education, as well as more community support and advocacy.

First-responders and others are starting to use overdose-reversing drugs in hopes of decreasing the number of fatalities. The drug, naloxone, is available as an injectable or nasal spray (known as NARCAN) and has recently been approved in some states for access without a personal prescription, so those who are around someone at risk of an overdose can access the mediation and be trained to administer it. 

Further, for those currently struggling with misuse of these drugs, an increase of access to treatment and recovery services is a top priority. 


As with any addictive substance, helping clients struggling with opioid dependence requires treatment. 

To start, there is a process of withdrawal and detox from the substance, which is safest done under close medical monitoring. Severe and uncomfortable symptoms can begin very shortly after stopping use. 

Some facilities use medication-assisted therapy (MAT) to help through the process, in which using methadone or buprenorphine is combined with counseling and behavioral therapies to provide a holistic approach and more successful recovery outcomes. These medications can safely be used long-term and are not simply a “new addiction” but a treatment that heals the brain and helps you as you do the hard work of recovery. 

Use of other medications is usually focused on addressing co-occurring mental illness. Individual and group therapy and community support are also utilized. Therapy helps to increase compliance with treatment, as it helps to change attitudes and behaviors, turning away from self-destructive or maladaptive actions and toward healthy life and coping skills. 

Residential and hospital-based environments are common for treatment. The structure and safety of a closed environment with professional care and peer support can be integral to positive treatment outcomes. 

The 2018 Substance Abuse and Mental Health (SAMSHA) National Survey on Drug Use and Health asked those age 12 or older who had experienced significant substance use issues about their reasons for not seeking treatment. 

Nearly 95% of respondents did not feel they needed treatment. For those that did see a need, about 38% were not ready to stop using, 32% had problems with health care coverage or financial resources, and 21.1% did not know where to go to get help. 

It’s important to note – if someone appears to be suffering from an opioid overdose, immediately call 911 or go to the nearest hospital for medical care. Time is of the essence. 

Opioid addiction is a serious and growing problem. But there is hope and you are not alone. If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction to opioids, don’t wait, call Steps Recovery Centers today to talk with our team of professionals – 385-250-1701

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