Narcotics, also called “opioids,” are a classification of drugs that relieve pain and anxiety and have the ability to induce sleep. Two main types of narcotics exist:
- Illegal narcotics: Heroin and opium are illegal street narcotics.
- Prescription painkillers: In modern medicine, narcotics–including codeine, hydrocodone, meperidine, methadone and morphine–are used to control pain and severe anxiety.
Although narcotics have many medical applications, these drugs are habit-forming when not used properly–just because a narcotic is legal doesn’t mean it’s safe. According to a study conducted by the Florida Medical Examiners Commission (2008), legal narcotics (such as Vicodin and OxyContin) caused nearly three times more fatalities in 2007 than illegal drugs in the state.
According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy (2002), approximately two million Americans abuse painkillers.
The Biology of Narcotics Addiction
Narcotics bind to receptors in the brain that control how people perceive pain. They also impair the brain’s ability to reabsorb neurotransmitters, resulting in pain relief, drowsiness and euphoria.
Chronic painkiller abuse reduces the body’s production of endorphins, a natural painkiller. To compensate for decreased endorphin levels, the user requires increasingly higher doses of the narcotic. As doses increase, physical dependency and tolerance are likely to develop.
Narcotics Addiction Risk Factors
Although men are slightly more likely to abuse narcotics than women, both sexes tend to develop narcotics addiction between the ages of 18 and 25. A family history of substance abuse increases the risk of narcotics addiction.
People who exhibit low self-esteem, as well as those who have antisocial or experimental tendencies are at high risk of narcotics addiction. Income also affects risk–those who are extremely wealthy or impoverished are at higher risk for painkiller abuse than the middle class. Family difficulties increase the risk of substance abuse in general, as does gang membership.
Painkiller abuse can develop out of medically necessary narcotic use. Not everyone prescribed narcotics develops painkiller abuse, however, suggesting that people who do were already at risk for substance abuse problems–due either to genetic or environmental factors.
Narcotics Addiction and Painkiller Addiction Symptoms
Painkiller addiction symptoms are difficult to detect. The person abusing narcotics often understands that his narcotic use is harmful and potentially illegal, so he may attempt to hide or deny his symptoms.
Painkiller addiction symptoms include:
- Bizarre behavior
- Constricted pupils
- Loss of coordination
- Mood swings
- Poor judgment
- Slurred speech.
Heroin addicts may have multiple needle marks or lesions on their skin from injecting drugs. People who abuse painkillers may visit several doctors to secure multiple prescriptions or engage in criminal activity, such as prescription forgery and theft.
Increased narcotics use can lead to overdose, which is often indicated by severe respiratory distress. An overdose is a medical emergency that can be fatal if not treated immediately.
Narcotics Addiction Treatments
Narcotics addiction treatment starts with detoxification, leading to painful withdrawal symptoms. Withdrawal can last up to two weeks, and the medications methadone and clonidine help reduce these symptoms.
Complete abstinence from painkillers is the only treatment for painkiller addiction symptoms. Abstinence help is available through addiction counseling, halfway houses and support groups such as Narcotics Anonymous.
How to Seek Help
Admitting the problem is the first step towards recovery from narcotics addiction. Few people can treat narcotics addiction symptoms alone. You can get support through local drug addiction centers, social services or the following organizations:
- Narcotics Anonymous: http://portaltools.na.org/portaltools/MeetingLoc/
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: 1-800-662-HELP (8255).
Heroin, opium and painkiller abuse can result in suicidal behavior. If you feel suicidal, or you believe a loved one is considering suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
Cave, D. (2008). Legal drugs kill far more than illegal, Florida says. Retrieved July 26, 2010, from http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/14/us/14florida.html
Health Communities. (2008). Narcotic abuse. Retrieved July 24, 2010, from http://www.mentalhealthchannel.net/narcotic/index.shtml
Narcotics Anonymous World Services. (1988). Am I an addict? Retrieved July 24, 2010, from http://www.na.org/admin/include/spaw2/uploads/pdf/litfiles/us_english/IP/EN3107.pdf
Office of National Drug Control Policy. (2002). SAMHSA factsheet: National household survery on drug abuse, 2001. Retrieved July 26, 2010, from http://www.whitehousedrugpolicy.gov/drugfact/nhsda01.html
Pavillon. (2010). Helping individuals struggling with prescription drug addiction. Retrieved July 24, 2010, from http://www.pavillon.org/prescription-drugs.php
Wrong Diagnosis. (2010). Narcotic addiction. Retrieved July 24, 2010, from http://www.wrongdiagnosis.com/n/narcotic_addiction/intro.htm