Opioid abuse is a public health crisis that has touched most American families in some way. Around 10 million people misuse prescription opioids every year, and in 2020, nearly three in every four overdose deaths in the U.S. involved opioids.

While these statistics are staggering, recovery is possible. Many people who once struggled with opioid use disorder are now living healthy, drug-free lives. Further, the designation of the opioid epidemic as a public health emergency means that there are more treatment options than ever before. From medications to behavioral therapy, inpatient treatment, and support groups, there are options available to fit every need.

Below, we’ll delve into the most common causes, signs, and symptoms of opioid abuse, as well as the different treatment and support options that are available.

Understanding Opioid Use Disorder

In the earliest stages of the opioid epidemic, the abuse of these drugs was heavily stigmatized. Terms like “addict” and “junkie” were used to disparage anyone who had developed a physical dependence on opioids. Instead of urging treatment, this stigma often led those struggling with addiction to hide their issues from their loved ones.

We understand that opioid use disorder is a chronic disease that can affect anyone. Celebrities, athletes, and Fortune 500 CEOs have all shared their struggles with opioid use disorder, helping de-stigmatize this medical condition. Further, class action lawsuits against the makers of Oxycontin and other opioid-containing medications have revealed some of the deceptive practices that helped these drugs gain such a foothold.

Causes of Opioid Abuse

Anyone who takes opioids is at risk of developing opioid use disorder, even when these drugs are legally prescribed after an injury or surgery. This is one factor that makes opioid use disorder so widespread. Even for physicians, it’s all but impossible to predict who may develop opioid dependence.

However, there are some common genetic, psychological, and environmental risk factors for addiction. Individuals with one or more of these risk factors may be at a higher risk of becoming addicted to opioids:

  • Poverty
  • Unemployment
  • Chronic stress
  • A personal or family history of substance abuse
  • A history of severe depression, anxiety, or other mental health disorders
  • A criminal history (including DUIs)
  • Regular contact with others who use illicit drugs
  • Risk-seeking behavior

Those who take opioids in a way other than intended (such as crushing or snorting pills) may be at a higher risk of opioid use disorder.

Opioid Abuse Symptoms

It can be tough to tell when someone is in the early stages of opioid use disorder. However, there are some common signs for those who know what to look for. These fall under behavioral, physical, cognitive, and psychosocial categories.

Behavioral and psychosocial symptoms include:

  • Fabricating injuries or lying about pain to receive an opioid prescription
  • “Doctor-shopping,” or visiting different doctors to receive multiple prescriptions
  • A decline in work performance
  • Increased isolation
  • Stealing medications from others
  • Mood swings
  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Paranoia

Physical and cognitive symptoms include:

  • Unexplained changes in hygiene
  • Weight loss
  • Scabs or sores that could indicate intravenous drug use
  • Vomiting and diarrhea
  • Nausea
  • Constricted or “pinpoint” pupils
  • Impaired judgment or problem-solving skills
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Slowed thinking

If a loved one begins showing some of these signs, it may be time for a frank conversation about their substance use and whether they’re ready to seek help.

Treatment Options for Opioid Use Disorder

Opioid Treatment Approaches

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer when it comes to opioid treatment. The best treatment (or combination of treatments) will depend on various factors unique to the patient. By customizing opioid treatment plans to the individual, recovery providers can help address the contributing causes of opioid use disorder and any challenges that recovery may pose.

Evidence-based treatment approaches for opioid use disorder include medication, counseling and behavioral therapies, and residential or hospital-based treatment.


Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT)

MAT is a comprehensive recovery approach that combines medication with counseling and behavioral therapies. By focusing on the whole patient – not just the physical dependence on opioids – MAT can increase the odds of successful long-term recovery.

MAT utilizes medications like buprenorphine (Suboxone), methadone, naltrexone (Vivitrol), and naloxone (Narcan). Buprenorphine is available as a dissolving tablet, cheek film, extended-release injection, or 6-month implant under the skin, while methadone is available as a daily liquid.

Each of these medications binds to the opioid receptors in the brain without providing the intoxicating effect of heroin, fentanyl, and other opioids. When used in combination and under a provider’s supervision, these medications can reduce cravings and withdrawal symptoms, allowing your brain to heal.

A study from the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) revealed that, after detox, both a buprenorphine/naloxone combination and an extended-release naltrexone tablet had similar success rates in treating opioid use disorder. However, naltrexone requires that the patient complete the detoxification process first, so for active users, many providers choose to begin with the Suboxone/Narcan combination.

While this medication is working to heal the brain, the patient can begin to focus on the other components of MAT—including group and individual therapy, counseling, and inpatient or residential treatment.


Rehabilitation Programs

Anuvia Prevention and Recovery Center offers several rehabilitation programs, including residential, outpatient, and short-term treatment. Each treatment option provides expansive access to therapy, counseling, and support, as these are key to a lasting recovery.

Residential Programs

As the name implies, residential programs provide intensive treatment in a residential setting and can include detox, MAT, group and individual therapy, and relapse prevention counseling.

Anuvia’s 32-bed inpatient treatment facility provides 24/7 treatment for anyone dealing with severe substance use disorders, including opioid use disorder. Individuals in residential treatment may stay from one to 28 days and will work one-on-one with a counselor to develop a customized aftercare program to help maintain sobriety even after leaving treatment.

Outpatient Programs

Outpatient programs are designed to meet the needs of those who are dealing with severe opioid use disorder but don’t require inpatient treatment.

Substance abuse comprehensive outpatient treatment (SACOT) is similar to residential programs in that it is fully immersive and intensive, but clients can return home at the end of each day. Clients typically meet 5 days a week, which enables them to work through challenges and learn effective skills that will support treatment and long-term recovery.

Intensive outpatient treatment programs (IOP) meet three times per week for twelve weeks while continuing care level programs meet once per week for four to six weeks.

All outpatient treatment programs provide:

  • Group and individual therapy
  • 12-step meetings
  • Substance use education
  • Family education
  • Relapse prevention programming
  • A customized aftercare plan

Short-Term Programs

Short-term treatment programs are intended for those with mild to moderate opioid use disorder who could benefit from support but who don’t require residential treatment. These programs meet twice per week and allow participants to work, attend school, and maintain family and personal commitments while also working toward recovery.

Anuvia’s short-term treatment programs include:

  • Group and individual therapy
  • 12-step meetings
  • Family education
  • Family support groups
  • Relapse prevention programming
  • Aftercare

Each of these programming options can be individually tailored to your needs.


Detoxification Process

Some people who struggle with opioid dependence want to stop using but are concerned about withdrawal symptoms. Once someone has developed a physical dependence on opioids, suddenly stopping use can lead to symptoms like:

  • Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
  • Muscle pain and restless leg syndrome
  • Fast heart rate (tachycardia)
  • Insomnia
  • Sweating
  • Restlessness
  • Anxiety
  • Tremors

Opioid detoxification, or detox, allows patients to withdraw from opioids under medical guidance and supervision. During the detox process, a medical provider will administer medications like methadone to help relieve physical symptoms of withdrawal while monitoring vital signs and assessing the patient’s comfort.

Although detox is a key component of treatment, it’s only the beginning. This process doesn’t delve into the reasons behind a patient’s opioid use or work to change habits. Starting one’s recovery at a detox facility can help ease the transition to treatment.

Support and Resources for Opioid Abuse

Finding Support

Whether you’re seeking treatment for yourself or would like to know how to best help a loved one struggling with opioid use, there are a variety of support options available.

  • The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has a National Helpline for those dealing with substance use disorders. By calling 1-800-662-HELP (4537), you can be connected with local resources, as well as a listening ear.
  • The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services also has information about health plans and insurers that offer coverage for substance abuse treatment.

Although the key to recovery is wanting to achieve sobriety for yourself, you don’t have to do it alone. It’s important to lean on your support network during treatment so that you can focus your energy on the recovery process. By having everyone on your team working toward a common goal, you’ll be better equipped to tackle whatever challenges may come your way during the treatment process.


Community Programs and Initiatives

Although the HHS and SAMHSA offer several national initiatives to address opioid abuse, Charlotte has many programs to tackle substance use at the local level.

  • Charlotte’s Substance Use Prevention Coalitions work to increase local awareness of the opioid epidemic, targeting students and young people who may be at risk of opioid use.
  • The Mecklenburg County Substance Use Disorder Task Force is a coalition of volunteers representing the prevention, treatment, criminal justice, education, faith, healthcare, pharmacy, geriatrics, social services, public health, law enforcement, homeless services, and recovery communities. The SUD Task Force is committed to opioid and substance use prevention in Mecklenburg County.
  • North Carolina’s Safer Syringe Initiative focuses on harm reduction by supporting syringe exchange programs. These programs also offer naloxone access and treatment services for anyone ready to seek recovery. Queen City Harm Reduction offers these services in the Charlotte area.

In Closing

Opioid use disorder doesn’t discriminate: it affects all races, genders, ages, and income levels. And for those struggling with this disorder, it can seem all-encompassing.

But help is available, and early intervention can make recovery easier. Take the first step toward sobriety today. Contact Anuvia today or visit our website to learn more about the treatment options we provide and how we can help.