Science of Opioid Addiction

Addiction to opiates is a powerful physiological process and medical condition. It is very important to note that addiction happens because of physical changes in the structure of the brain.  These changes are why addiction is called a “brain disease.”

Despite what many people in our society think, addiction is not a bad habit, a weakness of character, or a lack of strength, determination, discipline, or will power.  Addiction – commonly referred to as dependence or dependency – is an equal-opportunity disease. People from all walks of life – bricklayers, physicians, electricians, judges, insurance agents, construction workers, clergy, lawyers, retail clerks, CEOs, sales representatives, nurses, pharmacists, truck drivers and even heads of state – have all experienced the devastating reality of opioid addiction and, the personal and family problems it causes.

It is important to note that addiction to opioids is a medical condition and responds best to medically-based treatment. Opioid addiction is chronic, progressive, and potentially fatal if not treated.  Only rarely can the progression of the disease be reversed without formal treatment intervention. Once the brain structure physically changes, the person loses the ability to make logical choices and decisions. Making the obvious and simple choice to abstain is no longer easy because the brain begins to crave opiates, just like people crave the essential elements of life: food, water, and sleep. Just as someone becomes intensely symptomatic when deprived of food, water or sleep, the person who is addicted to opiates becomes increasingly ill from withdrawal.

People who are addicted face an overwhelming compulsion and obsession to “feed the disease” and experience near-constant physical cravings for the drug. In our clinical experience, we have never treated anyone who made a conscious choice to become addicted.  And in most cases, the addiction began after a physician or other healthcare provider prescribed a legal prescription pain medication after an injury or surgery. Regardless of how the addiction started, we know that addiction is a powerful disease over which many people are powerless.

The overwhelming urge to use is difficult for many people to understand – especially for those who do not use drugs.  Family members and “significant others” are frequently frustrated because their loved one cannot stop using. We can assure you that if it were as easy as making that choice, no person suffering from addiction would ever choose to continue down that destructive path.

For a person addicted to opiate drugs, the uncontrollable urge to use is best explained through a simple comparison to hunger and thirst. The longer a person goes without satisfying the body’s demand for food and water, the more intense their physical discomfort becomes. The hungry person becomes keenly and intently focused on finding something to eat in the same manner that an addicted person focuses on finding more drugs to satisfy the cravings. A person who is thirsty simply cannot focus on anything else until the thirst is quenched. Hunger and thirst become life’s first priorities. Similarly, drug seeking becomes a priority for persons suffering from addiction. This is a simple but incredibly powerful physiological phenomenon that dictates behavior until the need is met. This is also what drives good people to commit crimes and to act in ways that are uncharacteristic and abnormal.

We know that physical addiction is extremely powerful and all-consuming. Unless treated, the drive to use eventually overwhelms the person. Unfortunately, family members, significant others and even co-workers can be drawn into the web of this powerful family and community disease.