Opioid Use Disorder: Symptoms, Prevention & Treatment Options

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 107,000 Americans died from an overdose in 2021. Nearly 81,000 of these deaths—just above 75%—resulted from an opioid use disorder (OUD).

Opioids are associated with a high risk of abuse, misuse, and addiction because of the feelings of euphoria that they produce in addition to the pain relief. When a substance is abused, it activates the reward processing circuit in your brain, thus reinforcing itself and the behavior and encouraging further use.

Typically, an opioid use disorder (OUD) diagnosis is determined by not only the compulsive need to take the drug but also several other factors. These include the time spent finding, getting, and using opioids; whether or not the opioids cause significant dysfunction regarding social or professional obligations; and whether or not the substance use causes psychological or physical harm.

What are Opioids?

opioid use disorder

Opioids are chemicals that interact with specific receptors in the brain to reduce pain. An opioid can be either natural or synthetic. Synthetic opioids are made in labs and are meant to mimic the properties of a natural opiate.

Some opioids that you may have heard of before include oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, morphine, fentanyl, methadone, pethidine, tramadol, carfentanil, and more. As intended, these medications are effective at reducing the perception of pain. However, they also commonly cause the following side effects: 

  • Drowsiness
  • Mental confusion
  • Euphoria
  • Nausea
  • Constipation

Opioids are typically prescribed to treat acute pain, chronic pain, and pain due to cancer. It is also frequently used in palliative or end-of-life care. Many patients that are prescribed pain medications are able to take them as directed by their healthcare professional to treat their condition without resulting in dependency. That said, the risk is still high for anyone that takes them.

What is Opioid Use Disorder?

In the past, opioid use disorder was known as opioid abuse, opioid dependence, or opioid addiction. In 2016, about 2.1 million Americans had been diagnosed with OUD. However, it wasn’t until 2017 that the opioid epidemic was declared a National Public Health Emergency by the president.

Opiate use disorder can be best described as problematic habitual use of opioids that results in distress or other problems in an individual’s life. If opioid dependency is not treated properly, it can become a chronic disorder.

Although relapse is common, making this a lifelong disorder in some cases, it doesn’t have to be. It is important to discuss these concerns with your physician and continue working towards preventing relapse and enjoying recovery permanently.

Opioid Addiction

The term “addiction” is a broad term that is used to describe several conditions. An addiction can be characterized by compulsive and repetitive behaviors that might be difficult to control, most of the time leading to harmful consequences. 

However, this term is not used frequently among medical practitioners because it doesn’t accurately describe the complexity of these diseases. Substance use disorder is the more popular term used among clinical professionals.

All substance use disorders are disorders of the brain, including opioid use disorder. Contrary to popular belief, substance use disorders are not the result of a lack of willpower or morals.

Although someone may be more susceptible or vulnerable to opioid addiction, this doesn’t mean that they aren’t able to recover. In fact, it is crucial to motivate and encourage the individual to engage in treatment. Ongoing support and encouragement might also lead to better outcomes for someone recovering from opioid use disorder.

Opioid Use Disorder Symptoms

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the typical behaviors of someone with an opioid use disorder will include at least two of the following symptoms:

  • Taking more medication than prescribed or taking it for a longer time than instructed
  • Persistent attempts and unsuccessful efforts to decrease or control opioid use
  • Spending a significant amount of time searching for and using opioids, followed by a lengthy period of time recovering from its effects
  • Craving the substance
  • Continued opioid use even after experiencing social problems, as well as issues at work, school, or home

When left untreated or treated improperly, opioid misuse can lead to some serious consequences. These may include disability, several relapses, and even death. 

Not all opioid dependencies are created equally. An OUD can range from mild to moderate to severe. An additional sign that someone may be struggling with an opioid use disorder is if they often experience withdrawal symptoms.

Opioid Withdrawal

Withdrawal is the experience of uncomfortable and sometimes painful symptoms that occur in the absence of the drug. For example, the person using the drug might say something along the lines of “If I go too long without taking the drug, the pain gets so unbearable that I feel like taking pain medication again is the only way to stop suffering.”

Some of the most common opioid withdrawal symptoms are: 

  • Changes in mood
  • Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
  • Dilated pupils
  • Excessive sweating
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle and joint pain
  • Cold and flu symptoms
  • Difficulty sleeping

Some people attempting to stop taking a drug choose to undergo a medically managed withdrawal, where the drug is eliminated from the body under medical supervision. While this option is safer than abruptly quitting the drug without supervision, it is not the most popular method. Oftentimes, an individual wants to feel in control of their drug use and addiction.

The symptoms associated with withdrawal typically begin within hours of the individual’s last drug use and may last for days or even weeks. The problem with quitting “cold turkey” without medical assistance is that these uncomfortable and painful symptoms often lead to an opioid craving. This could, in turn, result in a relapse to relieve the symptoms of withdrawal.

Opioid Use Disorder Treatment Options

There are several opioid use disorder treatment options for those that are trying to conquer their opioid addiction. Medication-assisted treatment is one of the more well-known treatments that involves the use of prescribed medication, counseling, and behavioral therapy.

During this process, the behavioral aspect of treatment typically includes cognitive and behavioral approaches. This might entail motivating the recovering addict to continue making positive changes or educating them about their treatment and how to prevent relapse. They might also be encouraged to participate in a self-help program like Narcotics Anonymous. 

In addition to this, medication is prescribed to alter the individual’s brain chemistry, relieve cravings, reduce withdrawal symptoms, and block the positive effects of opioids.

opioid use disorder


Methadone is one of the most popular medications for opioid use disorder that is commonly prescribed during medication-assisted treatment. 

It helps prevent withdrawal symptoms and reduce cravings in those who are addicted to opioids. This drug does not cause any euphoric feelings after the patient begins to tolerate it. It is available in several forms, including liquid concentrate, wafer, and tablet.

Methadone is only available in clinics that are specially regulated. These clinics must provide SAMHSA-certified opioid treatment programs. At this time, no one else is legally allowed to prescribe or dispense methadone. 

The medical professional who is prescribing methadone has the option to determine whether the patient is stable enough to take it once daily at home or if they need to come in for on-site administration each day. 

Methadone is considered an opioid agonist, which means that it acts directly on the opioid receptors in the central nervous system and blocks them from being affected by opioids. Because of this, if a patient takes an opioid while also taking methadone, they are at an increased risk of overdose.


Similar to methadone, buprenorphine is an opioid use disorder medication that works by interacting with the opioid receptors in the brain. 

As a partial opioid agonist, buprenorphine works to reduce or eliminate cravings and withdrawal symptoms, but it still produces some euphoric effects. However, these effects are much weaker than those of full opioid agonists like morphine and heroin. 

Buprenorphine is typically prescribed during either the detoxification period or as a maintenance medication. It can be prescribed by any qualified physician, nurse practitioner, or physician assistant who has been specially trained.

There are two main types of buprenorphine:

  • Oral buprenorphine- available in the form of tablets or a buccal film, oral buprenorphine is meant to be dissolved under the tongue and taken daily.
  • Long-acting buprenorphine- can be a weekly dose injected under the skin or an implant under the skin every 6 months.

Preventing Opioid Use Disorder

There are several ways to prevent opiate use disorder, with the most obvious one being to reduce exposure to opioids in the first place. Some other methods of prevention include prescription drug monitoring programs, prescription drug laws, patient education on the safe storage and disposal of prescription opioids, and more.

Preventing Opioid Overdose

Needless to say, the most effective way to prevent an overdose is to prevent opioid misuse in the first place. This can be done by reducing exposure to opiates and educating patients on their safe use as well as the dangers of abusing the drug.

Under emergency circumstances, an opioid overdose can be reversed by administering naloxone to the patient. It reverses the overdose by helping the patient’s breathing return to normal. 

Naloxone is available at most pharmacies without a prescription, depending on what state you live in. It is available in several different forms, including a nasal spray, an injectable, and a prefilled automatic injection device. 

Opioid Prescription Regulations

The CDC has provided specific recommendations for physicians prescribing opioids. These recommendations address the proper way to initiate opioid use and assess any potential risks associated with opioid therapy.

The majority of large U.S. retail pharmacies are organizing protocols, guidelines, and other actions to take back any unused opioids in order to prevent them from making it into the wrong hands. They also supply naloxone kits and are very cautious about any suspicious prescriptions.

Accessible Opioid Education

In regards to opiate use, one of the most common causes of death is acute respiratory depression, which in turn results in death by asphyxiation. Efforts have been initiated internationally to reduce the mortality and morbidity associated with prescription pain medications.

Three of the most popular resources for patient assistance and education include:

Raising Opioid Use Disorder Awareness

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services provides several toolkits, evidence-based approaches, and media campaign materials that anyone can use to prevent and overcome the opioid crisis.

One of these prevention efforts is the Rx Awareness Campaign. This campaign tells the stories of real people whose lives have been torn apart by prescription drugs. The primary goal of this campaign has been to increase awareness of the dangers associated with prescription opioids.

Avoiding Opioid Use

If you or a loved one is suffering from acute or chronic pain, you should speak with the treating physician about non-opioid treatments for pain to avoid opioid exposure in your home.

Patients can work together with their entire healthcare team to successfully prevent opioid use disorder by avoiding opioid use and misuse.

ANR Treatment for Opioid Addiction

The ANR Clinic has helped over 24,000 patients worldwide to conquer opioid use disorder and safely return to life as they knew it before addiction took over. ANR stands for Accelerated Neuro-Regulation, and it is an approach unlike any other.

The hospital stay for ANR treatment is typically about 36 hours. During this time, our highly experienced and skilled team of physicians will return your brain to its pre-addiction state

Initially, the patient is sedated, and withdrawal is induced. Endorphin receptors in the brain are then modulated to their pre-addiction state. The patient will be continuously observed and reassessed over about 4-6 hours. This entire process is overseen by a physician and an anesthesiologist using state-of-the-art monitoring equipment.

opioid use disorder

Key Takeaways

Opioid use disorder is the habitual use of opioids, both illicit and prescribed. Although this can be a disorder with potentially life-threatening consequences, it can be treated with the right approach.

Here are some of the key points that we have discussed in this article:

  • Opioids can be either natural or synthetic and are typically prescribed to treat severe pain only after a non-opioid pain treatment has proven unsuccessful or not tolerated.
  • Opioid use disorder is a brain disease that results from problematic opioid use and can have severe consequences if left untreated.
  • Medication-assisted treatment is a very well-known treatment for OUD that involves the use of opioid use disorder medication, counseling, and behavioral therapy.
  • Some methods of battling the opioid crisis  include prescription drug monitoring programs, prescription drug laws, and patient education.
  • ANR treatment is a unique approach to treating opioid use disorder that addresses the physical and neurological aspects of the addiction by regulating and modulating the opioid receptors in your brain back to the pre-addiction state.

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