The opioid class of drugs includes those originating from the poppy plant — particularly morphine and codeine derivatives and their synthesized forms. Spanning from more naturally occurring drugs such as opium and heroin to commonly abused prescription drugs such as hydrocodone, oxycodone and methadone, opioids can quickly be habit-forming.
In fact, the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) found that by 2002, new heroin users each year in the United States had reached 164,000 in number. Even prescription drug abuse has been on the rise in America, with nearly 5.2 individuals abusing prescription opiates in 2007 alone.
For individuals facing addiction to opioid drugs, a combination of factors makes sobriety difficult to achieve without professional help. Opioids tend to create tolerance in addicted individuals as use progresses, causing individuals to use more of the drug over time.
Unfortunately, while the drug’s “high” or euphoric effects lessen with use, side effects can compound, leading to deadly overdoses especially in cases where alcohol or other drugs become involved. Acting on vital brain chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin, opioids produce sensations of painlessness, euphoric feelings and intense calm. As a result, the brain’s reward pathways become trained to associate drug use with pleasure — as well as associating the absence of opioids in the system with cravings and withdrawal symptoms, leading to both positive and negative reinforcement of drug use.
Opioid Detoxification and Withdrawal Symptoms
When opioids abruptly exit the system — whether during periods of self-imposed abstinence or during drug detoxification — withdrawal symptoms hit fairly quickly, usually within the first 24 hours of cessation. Though withdrawal symptoms generally resolve within a two-week span, the body and brain undergo a series of difficult adjustments. Among the symptoms of opioid withdrawal are high anxiety, cold flashes accompanied by chills, digestive problems, pain throughout the muscle and skeletal system, and uncontrolled shaking.
Psychologically, opioid withdrawal symptoms can be equally harrowing, with exhaustion and insomnia, personality and mood shifts, hallucinatory episodes and severe depression. In cases of overdose, automatic processes throughout the body can also become disrupted, leading to slowed heartbeat, depressed breathing, seizures and even death.
Medical vs. Natural Detoxification in Opioid Addiction Treatment
Natural treatment of opioid addiction can have several advantages over medical detoxification. The vast majority of withdrawal symptoms can be treated comfortably during the short-lived detoxification phase of addiction recovery, often with over-the-counter drugs and psychological counseling and support.
Secondly, while medical drugs such as methadone and buprenorphine can prove useful in reducing use and withdrawal symptoms in cases of opioid addiction, both drugs can carry addiction potential in and of themselves.
Finally, the ability of patients to successfully undergo the withdrawal process itself may contribute to lasting recovery, as the brain and body create a memory of the detoxification process as a reason to maintain sobriety.