Opioid Medication Abuse: America’s Epidemic

opioid medication abuse

The U.S is in the midst of an opioid overdose epidemic.


As more and more people are prescribed opioid medications, such as OxyContin, opioid-related deaths are rising to staggering levels.


Developed to treat moderate to severe pain, prescribed opioid medication is proving to be highly addictive to many patients.


The drug’s ability to create an influx of artificial feel-good hormones makes opioids extremely hard to discontinue, even after short periods of use.


And what happens when people can no longer access prescription opioid medications from their doctor or medical practitioner?


They may turn to illicit forms, such as heroin, possibly furthering the harm they may cause to themselves or others.


So What Exactly Is Opioid Medication


Opioids are man-made drugs derived from morphine. Morphine belongs to a class of drugs termed opiates. Opiates are naturally occurring drugs derived from the opium poppy plant, Papaver somniferum.


Fundamentally, the terms opiates and opioids are used interchangeably within the medical field. This is because opiates and opioids affect the same receptors within the brain resulting in the same effects on the central nervous system.




Think of it like this: all opiates are considered opioids, although not all opioids are naturally occurring opiates. The term opioid really is just a blanket term used to cover all naturally derived opiates and synthetic opioid medications.


So what are common opioid prescription medication or illicit opioid drugs that you may encounter?


Here are some of the most commonly used opioids in the US:

  • opium,
  • codeine,
  • fentanyl,
  • heroin,
  • hydrocodone,
  • hydromorphone,
  • methadone,
  • morphine,
  • oxycodone,
  • oxymorphone,
  • paregoric,
  • sufentanil,
  • and tramadol.

What Are Opioids Used For?


Opiate derived pain medications are prescribed to patients predominantly to treat moderate to severe pain. The drug is most commonly administered to patients after a surgery or major medical procedure. Common legal prescription medications include:


  • Morphine, a naturally occurring substance that is derived from the poppy plant. It is highly addictive.
  • Meperidine, a synthetic medication similar to morphine.
  • Codeine, less powerful than other opiates it is used for cases of low to moderate pain. Codeine is also considered an addictive substance.
  • Hydrocodone, the most commonly prescribed medication on the market. A semi-synthetic opioid included in drugs such as Vicodin and Lortab.
  • Oxycodone, a semi-synthetic opioid used to make Percocet and Oxycontin.
  • Fentanyl, one of the strongest synthetic opiate drugs available on the market. Commonly used for surgery recovery, often prescribed as a transdermal patch.

How Do Opiates and Opioids Work Within The Body?


Opioids attach to specific proteins called opioid receptors. This occurs on nerve cells within the brain, spinal cord, the gut, and various other parts within the body. When this occurs, the opioids block pain signals, sent from a pain site, which is intended to travel through the spinal cord to the brain.



Along with blocking pain signals to the brain, opioids also slow breathing and has a general calming and anti-depressant effect. This is due to the fact that the drug targets the brain’s reward system, releasing an influx of feel-good dopamine and endorphin hormones.


Dopamine is a neurotransmitter located within regions of the brain that regulates movement, cognition, motivation, and emotion. An influx of dopamine brings upon feelings of euphoria, happiness, and pleasantness to the user.  


Sounds great right?


Unfortunately, these feel-good reactions experienced by users don’t come without a price. Overstimulating this system, which rewards our natural behaviors, can establish harmful habits.


Harmful habits such as repetitive drug abuse.


You see, our brain circuits are wired to ensure we repeat life-sustaining activities. These activities are established within our behavior with a built-in pleasure and reward system in the brain.


Whenever this reward system is activated, and feelings of pleasure and reward are experienced, the brain notes that whatever activity is being played out needs to be remembered. This reward establishes within our brains the need to repeat this activity again and again.


It is an impressive survival mechanism that has propelled us to where we are today as humans.


It works great if the rewards promote survival, such as going for a run along the beach or park, but not so great if it rewards life-threatening behaviors, such as misusing potentially harmful drugs.


Side Effects Of Opioids and Opiates


There is a range of side effects that can be experienced when taking opioids or opiates. Some effects are experienced short-term and some are experienced long-term. This varies from person to person and depends heavily on the duration somebody is taking the medication and in what form it is being administered.


Either way, a “high” of some sort is usually experienced by the user when taking opioids.


Different opioids or opiates are fast acting, while some are slow acting. The faster-acting forms, such as heroin, produce a very intense high. Slow acting forms, like morphine or Oxycontin, produce a much longer lasting, less intense experience.


So aside from the high experienced when taking opioids, what are some of the other common side effects a user can expect?


Some other side effects may include

  • nausea,
  • drowsiness,
  • feelings of weakness,
  • breathing problems,
  • confusion,
  • changes in mood,
  • vomiting,
  • headaches,
  • lightheadedness,
  • and possible fainting.

Signs Of Opioid Addiction


The signs of opioid addiction can often be linked to certain symptoms of abuse. Substance abuse can be physical, psychological, and behavioral. Some clear signs of addiction begin with the inability to refrain from using more than the prescribed or recommended amount of the drug.


Or not being able to stop using the substance altogether.


From there, other signs of abuse may include

  • drowsiness,
  • shallow or slow breathing rate,
  • nausea,
  • vomiting,
  • constipation,
  • physical agitation,
  • poor decision making,
  • abandoning responsibilities,
  • slurred speech,
  • sleeping more or less than normal,
  • mood swings,
  • irritability,
  • depression,
  • lowered motivation,
  • and anxiety attacks.


And if someone overdoses on opioids?


First, check these following symptoms:

  • Is the person unresponsive?
  • Is their breathing slow, erratic, or are they not breathing at all?
  • Is their heart rate slow, erratic pulse, or they have no pulse?
  • Are they vomiting or have they already vomited?
  • Are they experiencing loss of consciousness?
  • Are their pupils constricted?


If somebody is showing any of these symptoms and you suspect they are experiencing an overdose, immediately contact emergency services on 9-1-1.

How Is Opioid Addiction Disorder Treated?


A doctor or medical health professional can diagnose opioid addictions. Treatment for opioid addiction differs from person to person. Obviously, the main goal of treatment is to ensure the user ceases using the drug. The other reason for treatment is to ensure that once the person has stopped using that they avoid relapsing and using it again in the future.


When somebody stops using opioids, their bodies will react. As the brain adjusts to having the entire pleasure and reward system depleted, the pain signals from the body flood the brain, causing extremely unpleasant withdrawal symptoms.


The severity of the symptoms depends on the level of addiction, the most common symptoms of withdrawal being:

  • sweating,
  • nausea,
  • vomiting,
  • abdominal pain,
  • and anxiety.


Doctors or medical practitioners can prescribe specific medications to help relieve withdrawal symptoms. Medications such as methadone, buprenorphine, or naltrexone can also assist in the cravings recovering users may experience.


There are many effective treatment options that may assist someone’s recovery. Opioid addiction can be treated with


  • counseling and behavioral therapies,
  • medication-assisted therapy, which includes medicines, counseling, and behavioral therapies. This offers a “whole patient” approach to treatment, which can increase the chance of a successful recovery,
  • and residential and hospital-based treatments.


There are also many organizations that are dedicated to assisting people who have an opioid addiction. Organizations such as SAMHSA and the U.S Department of Health and Human Services will assist people seeking reliable and effective treatment facilities. Ask family and friends for support too, they can be an integral part of somebodies recovery.

Medically Reviewed: September 25, 2019

Dr Ashley

Medical Reviewer

Chief Editor


All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.

Dr Ashley Murray obtained her MBBCh Cum Laude in 2016. She currently practices in the public domain in South Africa. She has an interest in medical writing and has a keen interest in evidence-based medicine.

All of the information on this page has been reviewed and verified by a certified addiction professional.