Opioid Addiction: A Medical Condition
By Dr. Jessica Badichek, PharmD
Addiction to opioid drugs such as heroin or prescription pain relievers can be one of the most difficult addictions to overcome. According to the US National Library of Medicine, misuse of prescription opioids and heroin affects 2 million Americans and drug overdose in adults under 50 is the leading cause of death.
You may be wondering, how is this possible? How can so many people become addicted to opioid medications? The answer is clear: opioids are highly addictive. Opioid addiction is described as a powerful, compulsive urge to use opioid drugs, even when not medically required. People that become addicted may make getting and taking opioid drugs their main priority. But, why does this happen? And, why do people become addicted?
Opioids change the chemistry of the brain. A person may start taking an opioid drug; their body has a response, whether it’s pain relief or a pleasant feeling of euphoria. Yet over time, the person finds that they must take higher doses to achieve the same effect that they had when they took the opioid drug the first time. This is what is known as drug tolerance. Drug tolerance happens to every person taking an opioid medication. Over an even longer period of time, drug dependence occurs. Drug dependence is not the same as addiction. Dependence is a physical response that occurs in everyone, such that when people stop taking the drug, they have physical and psychological symptoms of withdrawal. Opioid withdrawal symptoms occur soon after stopping opioid drugs and include muscle cramping, diarrhea, anxiety and general pain among many other symptoms. Someone dependent on opioids can become addicted to them and seek more and more drug to fill the need that has been changed in the brain. And again, why do some people become addicted?
This answer is not simple. We know that opioids change brain chemistry and cause physical and psychological dependence but the causes for why some people become addicted and others don’t, remain unclear. Studies have shown genetic components playing a major role. Other factors such as environmental and having other psychiatric conditions may interact with genetic factors, increasing a person’s risk. Every person is genetically unique; therefore, the possibilities of people having genetic variations that make them more prone to becoming addicted to a medication are very probable.
So, we may not know the true cause of addiction, but does this make it not considered a medical condition? No. We know that some people have depression and there is an imbalance of chemicals in their brain, yet we don’t know what definitively causes this. The same type of thinking can be applied here. Even though, we may not know all of the causes, one thing is certain, addiction is a disease and must be treated like any other medical condition.
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About the Author:
Dr. Jessica Badichek is the Director of Clinical Operations at CompreCareRx. With extensive knowledge of psychiatric therapeutics, substance use disorder therapies and pharmaceutical compounding, she is dedicated to providing optimal clinical care policies that focus on the needs of every individual patient. She has a passion for caring for those suffering from addiction and seeks to provide superior clinical care. She holds a Doctor of Pharmacy degree from Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and is a registered pharmacist.