Facts and Myths About Opioid Addiction
It’s a problem that has become a national crisis. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, more than 90 Americans die every day after overdosing on opioids. Opioids are common and effective prescription drugs used to treat chronic body pain but they carry serious risks if used incorrectly.
While the devastating effects of opioid addiction hits home for many people and their families, it’s important to understand what’s true and what’s myth when it comes to opioids.
“Opioid abuse affects millions of Americans and it can affect countless friends and families around those suffering from addiction,” says Kevin P. Caputo, M.D., vice president of behavioral health and chair of psychiatry at Crozer Health. “There is a lot of information out there on this type of addiction, but it’s important to separate fact from the fiction you’ll sometimes encounter, either online or by word of mouth.”
Five Myths About Opioid Addiction
Here are five myths about opioid addiction and the facts that are important to know:
Myth: Addiction, physical dependence and tolerance all mean the same thing.
A lot of people think these terms can be used interchangeably when describing opioid addiction. It's important to understand what each term means.
- Addiction: Addiction is a chronic disease in which someone compulsively uses drugs for non-medical reasons. When someone is addicted to opioids, it means they can be dependent on the drugs physically and mentally.
- Physical Dependence: When a person’s body has adapted to the presence of an outside drug, it now has a physical dependence on it. The body now relies on the drug (opioids in this case) to prevent withdrawal symptoms.
Opioids are not the only substance that can cause physical dependence. Your body can also become physically dependent on caffeine, nicotine, sugar and anti-depressants.
It’s important to make a distinction between addiction and dependence—two words that are often used interchangeably. Addiction can occur without physical dependence and physical dependence can occur without addiction.
- Tolerance: Tolerance is when the body is no longer able to respond to a drug in the same way. It means the body has built up a resistance to the drug and a higher dose or more of the drug is needed to have the same effect.
Myth: People with addiction are weak and made bad choices.
It’s a stereotype for both opioid addicts and other types of addicts—that they have brought addiction upon themselves with their poor choices and are “morally weak.” This stereotype is rooted in the idea that people with addiction just need better willpower to stop using drugs.
Once a person is addicted to an opioid, it can cause significant changes in their brain that impact their decisions and behavior. It goes beyond the person actively choosing whether or not to abuse drugs,” says Caputo. “Opioids work by binding to certain receptors in the central nervous system to decrease feelings of pain. For addicts, it can alter their system enough that the presence of drugs feels like the new normal.”
Myth: It’s safer to bear the pain than to risk addiction.
There is no reason to make yourself suffer by avoiding treatment. If you’re in pain and worried about the risk of addiction with taking certain medication, talk to your doctor. Your healthcare provider can walk you through safe and effective ways of taking your medication.
“Patients shouldn’t be afraid of their medication or feel that they need to avoid it out of fear of addiction,” says Caputo. “It’s important to understand the risks of opioids, but also to understand that it’s possible to use them and avoid addiction.”
Myth: Methadone treatment is just substituting one drug addiction for another.
Similar to using a nicotine patch when trying to quit smoking, methadone is a way to control and regulate a person’s craving for opioids. In a controlled methadone program, clinicians or doctors can help monitor a person’s progress. They can then help patients gradually reduce their dependence on methadone and get clean.
“Methadone is different from opioids or other illegal drugs because it is not a short-acting drug. It’s used for long-term administration to help balance the body’s metabolic and hormonal functioning that is often interrupted by opioid abuse,” says Caputo. “Methadone binds with the same receptors in the brain as opioids, which helps to relieve a patient’s physiological dependency without the rush and crash associated with opioid drugs.”
Myth: I can stop taking opioids whenever I want.
This is a common misconception for people with and without addiction. With addiction and/or drug dependence, the body is now susceptible to intense cravings for the drug that the person can often no longer manage on their own. Once the body is dependent on a drug, the addict can no longer make a conscious decision to stop taking the drug without withdrawal symptoms.
“It is possible to treat opioid addiction,” says Caputo. “If you or someone you know may have an opioid addiction, talk to your doctor as soon as possible. Asking is the first step to getting help.”