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Signs & Symptoms of Opioid Dependence

Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley has a JD degree and is an attorney. She has taught and written various law courses.

Opioid drugs are narcotic pain relievers that suppress pain while increasing feelings of pleasure. For this reason, they can be highly addictive. This lesson discusses the signs and symptoms of opioid dependence.

Understanding Opioids

You may have a friend or family member who has dealt with a dependence on pain pills. That type of dependence is known as opioid dependence.

An opioid is a pain relieving medicine also known as a narcotic. Sometimes, people use the term narcotics to refer to all sorts of controlled substances, but a narcotic is a specific type of drug that affects the brain in a certain way. As mentioned above, opioids are narcotics.

Opioids are narcotic pain pills

Opioids are either derived from active chemicals found in opium or chemically synthesized to mimic the pain relieving effects of opium. Opium is an ancient drug made from poppy seed pods that is used for both medicinal purposes and in tribal rituals. Opioids work by binding to certain receptors in the user's brain, spinal cord and other nerve areas. The receptors are known as opioid receptors. Like opium, opioids temporarily help block pain messages in the user's brain while increasing feelings of pleasure and reward.

Some opioids are legal as long as the user holds a valid prescription and the medicine is properly administered. This includes drugs like morphine, codeine and oxycodone. Other opioids, such as heroin, are illegal.

Opioid Dependence

Both legal and illegal opioids are subject to abuse and are popular sources of abuse. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that around two million people in the U.S. have prescription opioid use disorders, and another 450,000 or so are addicted to heroin.

It's important to note that opioid use disorder is a broad term used to describe opioid abuse, opioid addiction, opioid dependency and any other disorder caused by the recurrent use of opioid drugs. This includes prescription drug abuse, which is taking a medication that was prescribed for someone else or taking a prescription in a manner not intended by the prescribing doctor.

Generally, opioid dependence refers to the user's physical reliance on the drug. Dependence happens when the user's body develops a tolerance to the drug, requiring higher doses in order to achieve the desired effect. When a dependent user stops taking the drug, that user will experience withdrawal symptoms.

Some studies show that repeated use of opioids, or the misuse of opioids, can lead to physical dependence within six weeks. However, when used properly and as prescribed, dependence is unlikely.

Signs and Symptoms of Opioid Dependence

There are several signs and symptoms indicating a user might be dependent on opioids. Typically, a user would experience several of these signs and symptoms within the same time period before being diagnosed as dependent. Keep in mind that any diagnosis involving a drug use disorder needs to come from a licensed professional.

Physical symptoms of opioid dependence include:

  • Unusually high pain tolerance
  • Extreme drowsiness or sleepiness
  • Shallow or slow breathing
  • Delayed reactions
  • Slurred speech
  • Constricted pupils

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