Opioid Use Disorder: Rehabilitation, Signs, Symptoms, and Risks


Amanda Stevens, BS

Medical Review by:

Dr. Po Chang Hsu MD, MS

Updated On: Jan 13, 2024
Last Medical Reviewer On: April 29, 2024
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    Opioids are prescription painkillers used to treat chronic or severe pain. Due to their euphoric-like effects, they are commonly misused. Long-term misuse of opioids can lead to dependence and addiction, triggering serious health problems.

    What Are Opioids?

    Opioids are a broad category of drugs that include both naturally derived and synthetically produced painkillers used to treat severe or chronic pain. The chemical makeup of opioids causes relaxation, pain relief, and a euphoric high by activating opioid receptors in the brain and throughout the body.[1]

    Some opioids, such as morphine and codeine, are naturally derived from the opium poppy and are classified as opiates. Heroin, although originally derived from morphine, is usually classified as an opioid due to its synthetic modification and illegal status. Others, like fentanyl and methadone, are synthetic opioids manufactured in a lab. All pain-relieving substances that interact with opioid receptors are considered opioids.

    According to recent numbers put out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention(CDC), nearly 24% of overdose deaths involved opioids in a single year in 2020 – which was 16% more than 2019.[2]

    All narcotic opioid painkillers range from Schedule I (heroin) to Schedule V (cough syrup) controlled substances, depending on the risk of abuse and the approved medical applications. Street names for opioids include Smack, Horse, Brown Sugar, Junk, Black Tat, Big H, Hillbilly Heroin, OC, Ox, and Oxy, among others.[3]

    Side Effects of Opioid Use

    Despite the initial effects of pain relief and relaxation, other common side effects of opioids vary slightly, depending on the substance.

    Heroin side effects include drowsiness, shallow or depressed breathing, constricted pupils, nausea, dry mouth, and heavy limbs.[4]

    Fentanyl’s side effects include feeling sedated, confused, drowsy, dizzy, sick to your stomach, constricted pupils, and shallow or depressed breathing.[5]

    Prescription opioid side effects for drugs like hydrocodone, oxycodone, Vicodin, and oxycontin include drowsiness, confusion, nausea, constipation, euphoria, and shallow or depressed breathing.[6]

    The three primary identifiers for side effects associated with most opioids or narcotics are:

    • Decreased consciousness
    • Shallow or depressed breathing
    • Constricted pupils

    How Are Opioids Taken?

    All opioids can be administered in several ways, especially in a hospital setting. In situations of misuse, there may be variances in how it’s taken and the dosage. For example, heroin is usually injected with a syringe, whereas fentanyl is administered via contact patches. Prescription opioids are tablets taken orally or films that melt in the mouth.

    Opioid Quick Reference

    Drug Category Commercial & Street Names DEA Schedule Administration
    Opioids Smack, Horse, Brown Sugar, Junk, Black Tat, Big H, Hillbilly Heroin, OC, Ox, Oxy Schedule I - V Orally Intranasal Intravenous Intramuscular Subcutaneous Intrathecally

    Learn About Specific Opioids

    See additional resources to learn more about specific opioids:

    Statistics on Opioid Use, Misuse, and Addiction

    Opioid misuse has long been a recognized concern and was officially labeled a crisis in 2017. Additionally, the CDC estimates that over 108,000 overdose deaths occurred in one year from April 2021 to 2022.  Opioids were responsible for 75% of overdose deaths in 2020.[7]

    Effects of Opioid Abuse

    Prescription opioid abuse can lead to an opioid use disorder requiring professional opioid addiction treatment. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services notes that prescription opioid misuse can sometimes escalate to heroin use, as individuals seek more potent effects or alternatives when prescription drugs are less accessible.[8]

    Can You Overdose on Opioids?

    Absolutely. An overdose of opioid substances can be fatal. As stated above, in 2020, opioids were involved in nearly 75% of all drug overdose deaths. Overdose is more likely when other substances are present as well or with highly potent opioids like heroin and fentanyl.

    Signs and Symptoms of Opioid Overdose

    An overdose of opioid substances could vary depending on what was taken, but for narcotic opioid painkillers, it will look similar to their side effect but with greater severity. Signs and symptoms of opioid overdose include:[9]

    • Constricted pupils
    • Decreased consciousness
    • Depressed breathing
    • Clammy skin
    • Confusion
    • Convulsions
    What to do if you suspect someone is overdosing on Opioid:

    Immediately call 911 for emergency medical care. If available, administer a dose of Narcan and monitor their breathing until help arrives.

    Dangers of Long-Term Opioid Use

    Despite their effectiveness at relieving serious, chronic pain, opioids can alter brain chemistry over time. This byproduct of long-term use or misuse can change how you experience pain and pleasure. [10]

    Mixing Opioids with Other Drugs

    Opioids are often mixed with other substances to heighten the effects of one or both substances. Common polysubstance use with opioids includes alcohol, benzodiazepines (Xanax, Valium, etc.), and other opioids.

    Opioid Addiction and Abuse

    Pain medication is designed to alleviate chronic or severe physical suffering. And yet, the cost of long-term abuse is significant. Psychiatrists and clinicians use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5) to determine the presence or severity of any substance use disorder, including opioid use disorder.

    The criteria of OUD are:[11]

    • Increasing doses or frequency
    • Trying to cut back unsuccessfully
    • Preoccupied with using or obtaining opioids
    • Desires and cravings for opioids
    • Inability to maintain obligations
    • Apathetic to consequences or disruption
    • Taking opioids in personally hazardous circumstances
    • Withdrawing from personal and professional circles
    • Not stopping despite psychological issues
    • Requiring more doses to feel the effects (building tolerance)
    • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms when taking a lower dose

    Are Opioids Addictive?

    Yes. Opioids and opiates are highly addictive. Most opioids are classified as controlled substances, primarily ranging from Schedule II to V, due to their potential for misuse, with heroin as a notable Schedule I drug.

    How Addictive Are Opioids?

    Opioids activate the brain’s natural reward center, triggering the desire for more. This can increase dose and frequency, sparking the cycle of addiction. Heroin, a Schedule I drug, and fentanyl, typically a Schedule II drug, are noted for their high potential for misuse. Many prescription opioids, including oxycodone and morphine, are also classified under Schedule II due to their high potential for abuse but recognized medical use.

    Signs of Addiction to Opioids

    Similar to the OUD diagnosis criteria, if you or a loved one is addicted to opioid substances, you may be taking higher doses or using them more frequently. If you’ve tried to stop in the past or are constantly preoccupied with opioids, this could indicate opioid use disorder.

    The presence of cravings for opioids, an inability to maintain obligations, being unconcerned about the consequences of an unhealthy habit, or taking opioids in risky situations are also indicators of addiction.

    If you’re not able to feel the euphoric high with the same intensity unless you increase the dose or you experience withdrawal symptoms without it, your body may have developed a tolerance to opioids.

    Engaging in illegal activities, such as stealing medications from others to obtain opioids, is a significant red flag for addiction. The other one is missing out on daily obligations due to frequent use or recovery from use.

    Opioid Addiction Treatment

    There is help and hope for any substance use disorder. As the nation navigates the healthcare crisis surrounding opioids, it’s more important than ever to start the recovery journey today.

    Opioid Treatment Center Levels of Care

    Seeking treatment for opioid use disorder offers your future self a chance at holistic health and wellness.

    • Medical Detox: With medication-assisted treatment and medical detox, your body can safely eliminate harmful toxins while you are safe and comfortable.
    • Inpatient treatment: Residential or inpatient treatment offers the opportunity for you to focus solely on self-care, opioid addiction treatment, Mental Health concerns, and holistic treatment programs without being distracted by daily routines and obligations.
    • Aftercare: Alumni aftercare programs are an evidence-based long-term approach to sobriety and wellness that maintain a high level of support for the rest of your life. From group therapy and 12-step programs to coping skill development and peer support, you never have to walk a day of your journey alone.

    Therapies Used in Opioid Addiction Treatment

    Therapy is a crucial component of every recovery program. It is powerful because it helps you identify, understand, and address underlying causes and harmful patterns. Through therapeutic modalities, you will learn practical knowledge and skills to become a healthier person for life.

    • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT): CBT helps you discover the negative thought patterns holding you back and help you think more positively to build healthier habits.
    • Holistic Treatment Modalities: Holistic services include reiki, sound healing, massage therapy, yoga, Ayurveda, smudging, meditation, music therapy, and physical fitness training. These modalities foster mind-body healing to support sobriety.
    • Experiential Therapy: A hands-on modality, experiential therapy is facilitated by a licensed professional. During these sessions, you can address underlying mental health issues and past trauma while engaging your whole body in relaxing and fun activities like crafts, art, music, and nature exploration.

    Opioid Addiction and Mental Health

    Opioid addiction and mental health concerns are often associated with one another. Over time, as your brain chemistry changes, you may experience new psychological symptoms that can be devastating to your mental health. Seeking professional opioid addiction treatment is critical for mind/body healing.

    Co-Occurring Disorders

    According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, approximately 2 million adults in the U.S. were diagnosed with opioid use disorder in 2016. Among them, 62% also experienced co-occurring mental health disorders, yet only about 24% received treatment for any condition. Some common co-occurring mental health conditions include:[12]

    How To Find Opioid Addiction Treatment in Connecticut

    To locate the best treatment program in Connecticut, check with your insurance provider. They will have a list of trusted and approved providers in your area who are either in-network or who have out-of-network benefits.

    You can also search the extensive database provided by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website through their Behavioral Health Services locator tool.

    First or second-person referrals are also a great way to find the best treatment center. Whether looking at reviews, making phone calls, contacting support groups, or asking friends and family, someone in your circle or close to it can provide valuable insights.


    Opioid Detox and Withdrawal Management

    Detox is often the first step in any recovery journey. A medically supervised detox offers a monitored space where you can safely withdraw from harmful substances without the risk of more serious side effects.

    For opioid use disorder, there are specific medications like Suboxone (buprenorphine/naloxone) prescribed for opioid withdrawal. This medication-assisted treatment serves to alleviate withdrawal symptoms, reduce cravings, increase comfort, and decrease the chance of relapse.[13]


    Frequently Asked Questions

    How do I get out of an opioid addiction? Chevron Down
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