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What are Opioids & Opioid Addiction?

What are Opioids & Opioid Addiction?

Opioids are a class of drugs that are commonly prescribed to treat pain. Opioids include both opiates (drugs derived from the opium poppy, including morphine, codeine, heroin, and opium) and synthetic opioids like hydrocodone, oxycodone, and methadone, which have similar effects.[1] Common prescription opioids include:

  • Oxycontin (oxycodone)
  • Vicodin (hydrocodone and acetaminophen)
  • Dilaudid (hydromorphone)
  • Morphine

Opioids attach themselves to opioid receptors in the brain, spinal cord, and gastrointestinal tract. Whenever opioids attach to these receptors, they exert their effects. The brain actually manufactures its own version of opioids – natural ones – known as “endorphins.” Endorphins are are responsible for a host of effects within the body, including decreasing pain, lowering the respiratory rate, and even helping to prevent depression and anxiety.[1] Opioids interact with opioid receptors on nerve cells in the brain and nervous system in a similar way to endorphins, producing pleasurable effects.

Addiction is a primary, chronic and relapsing brain disease characterized by an individual pathologically pursuing pleasure or reward and/or relief by substance use and other behaviors. The word “addiction” comes from a Latin term meaning “enslaved by” or “bound to.” Anyone suffering from an addiction understands why this meaning is relevant to what they experience.[2]

Many opioids produce a strong euphoric effect in the brain. The brain registers all pleasures in the same way, whether they originate with a psychoactive drug, a monetary reward, a sexual encounter, or a satisfying meal. In the brain, pleasure has a distinct signature process: the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the cerebral cortex. Dopamine release in the part of the brain known as the nucleus accumbens is so consistently tied with pleasure that neuroscientists refer to the region as the brain’s “pleasure center.”


Opioid drugs provide a shortcut to the brain’s reward system by flooding the brain’s “pleasure center” with dopamine. Repetitive use of these drugs, whether it be heroin, or prescription opioids, actually changes brain chemistry. Over time, the brain’s neurotransmitter and neuropeptide systems become dysregulated…put simply they stop working properly. The flood of intoxicating brain chemicals called neurotransmitters (chiefly dopamine) during drug use makes the brain relatively insensitive to “normal” sources of pleasure. [3]

Two other parts of the brain also play a role in developing addiction over time. The hippocampus lays down memories of this rapid sense of satisfaction, and the amygdala creates a conditioned response to stimuli. The combination of these processes creates a strong automated pleasurable memory process in the brain that impacts a person’s ability to reason and function normally. [3]

As a person continues to use opioids over time, the body becomes desensitized to their effects, and needs greater amounts to achieve the same effects the person previously experienced. This is known as “tolerance.” Increasing tolerance over time also increases the risk of accidental overdose due to the dangerous respiratory effects opioids cause.

Additionally, prolonged use changes the way nerve receptors work in the brain altogether. In some cases, people don’t even realize that they’ve become dependent until they stop using opioids. Along with cravings for more opioids that the body experiences, withdrawal symptoms are the body’s physical response to the absence of the drug. Often a person may experience sickness and flu like symptoms without opioids in the body. The cravings and withdrawal symptoms can be overwhelmingly strong, making the urge for opioids difficult to resist.

PursueCare’s Treatment Program for Opioid Use Disorder:

Since addiction has so much to do with what’s happening in your brain and body, we believe treatment should too. That’s why PursueCare’s program is designed to give you the help you need in your body…  as well as in your life. Our compassionate and stigma-free telehealth treatment program is sometimes known as “Medication-Assisted Treatment.” It is similar to the care a person would experience at an outpatient clinic, but can be accessed from anywhere through a smart phone app.

The program connects you with a medical provider who prescribes medications like Suboxone that help control cravings and withdrawal, as well as a counselor to help you to address behaviors, and ultimately return to a healthy lifestyle. You meet with your care team via private live video conferencing right on your phone.

Your care team will work with you to develop a personalized care plan that outlines how often you’ll meet with them, the type of treatment you’ll receive, and any additional steps you may need to take. Convenient toxicology screenings will be sent to your home, and our pharmacy sends medication directly to you as well.

If you need extra help along the way—secure messaging and on-demand care give you immediate access to support.

Treatment is covered by many insurances, and we also offer low-cost plans that fit your budget. Our care coordinators are available to answer your questions and help you get started.

Ready to begin your recovery journey? Let’s go!


[1] Case-Lo, C. (2017, July 26) Withdrawing From Opiates and Opioids. Retrieved from: https://www.healthline.com/health/opiate-withdrawal

[2] LeWine, H. (2012, February 16) Addiction: It retrains the brain, is tougher on women. Retrieved from: https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/addiction-it-retrains-the-brain-is-tougher-on-women-201202164280

[3] Bier M. (2017, July 25) Is addiction a “brain disease?” Retrieved from: https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/is-addiction-a-brain-disease-201603119260

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