Understanding The Complex Relationship Between Prescription Pills And Opiates

Understanding the complex relationship between prescription pills and opiates: why they have more things in common than you think.

Drug problems have been an evident thing throughout the history of the United States, thanks to the prevalence and availability of drugs such as alcohol and marijuana. However, a new problem is emerging and increasing in popularity, despite having had a break for some time – the increase of heroin use.

The past twenty years have seen the increasing numbers of deaths due to heroin overdoses, as well as abuse rates increasing – making it qualify as an epidemic.

If you know someone who is suffering from opiate abuse, you may be wondering what has led to that. However, the answer is simpler than you think – and it has something to do with prescription opioids, such as Percocet and Vicodin. In fact, the rise of heroin abuse is not really due to problems with drug trafficking, although that plays a role. For many users of heroin today, their first exposure is prescription drugs, not heroin.

Is there a difference between opioid and opiate?

Most overdoses are related to using opioids – you may be wondering what those are.

Some legalized painkillers such as codeine and morphine, as well as heroin itself, are derivatives of opium, a substance that you get from the poppy plant. They are very powerful painkillers, and are sometimes referred to as opiates.

Opioids on the other hand, is a term that refers to any drug that will give the user analgesic effects through its action on the nervous system, although it was used as a term for synthetic substances in the past.

All opioids, regardless of whether they are natural or synthetic, will all produce the same effects in the body. How your body responds to pain is a series of communication between the brain and the nerves: the nerves send signals to the brain when something hot or sharp interacts with them, then the brain will send a message back to the body alerting it that there is pain somewhere. What these drugs actually do is to dull the response of the brain to pain. In other words, an opioid will block the ‘ouch’ signal from getting to your body.

The pain does not really go away, but it does not bother you for that period when they are in effect. This makes them a useful tool during operations, and treating of acute pain. However, when they are used in the management of chronic conditions, it is easy to develop tolerance to them, and subsequent addiction.

This creates a heavy toll, because you begin to prioritize the use of these drugs over fulfilling your personal and social responsibilities.

It leads to euphoria

Addiction is a complicated subject to handle, and it is not just a habit you suddenly stop and move on. Heroin is mainly seen as an alternative when prescription pills become too expensive, and this is part of the reason why many people move on to it.

It all starts out innocently – you want some pain medication because you have been going through a lot of chronic pain for one reason or another. When you get opioid prescription drugs, they bring you a heightened sense of relief, and if you are not careful, you find yourself taking them again – just to get that ‘feeling’. This soon evolves into opiate abuse, and addiction.

The warning signs regarding addiction may not be very specific, because the path to addiction is not that straightforward for all cases. Of course, not all prescription pills will evolve into a heroin addiction. In fact, only about four percent of prescription opioid abusers will progress into heroin use within the span of five years – but it still remains a major factor.

In addition, numerous people that abuse opioid prescription drugs always are wary of the negative stigma attached to heroin. Somehow though, the complexities of addiction will make them not care anymore, as long as they get their next fix. Addiction is compulsive and controlling, and there is a sense of not being in your right mind when you are addicted to a drug – you completely lose control of yourself.

How do opioid drugs affect the brain?

The dulling of pain signals from the brain is due to the binding of opiates to specific opioid receptors within the brain, this leads to a sharp increase in levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine, the chemical the brain releases when you are in a state of pleasure.

The constant flooding of dopamine will cause the brain to get rid of certain opioid receptors, since they cannot handle all the dopamine. This creates a state of ‘tolerance’, because you need more of the drug to achieve the same intense feeling of happiness. The imbalance they create also leads to the suppression of respiration, and also respiratory arrests – something that happens when you overdose on these drugs.

When you become addicted, you experience withdrawal symptoms once you stop using the drug, and this leads to addiction. 

Is there a road to recovery?

Even though the statistics and facts seem gloomy, fortunately there is a way to recover. If you have a loved one or a friend struggling with the addiction, they can receive help through rehab programs.

The acknowledgement of the problem has gone a long way to create strategies to treat the addiction. An example of this would be the National Governors Association (NGA) creating regulations that reduce the types and numbers of prescriptions for every person, a move that has gained support from many quarters.

It does not come without its fair share of criticism though, as the use of heroin has increasedsignificantly within the white population in the United States by 114 percent, as well as the middle income segment by 77 percent. Four out of five people addicted to heroin began through abusing prescription opioids, so that is also something to keep in mind.

Final thoughts

Opiate abuse is not something that directly begins with heroin, at least not for most people. It is therefore important to keep a close watch on the use of prescription opioids, as this is the source of trouble for many people, and it is also easier to overdose on pills.