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Opioid Dependence

What is Opioid Dependence?

The NIDA defines dependence as “a state in which an organism functions normally only in the presence of a drug.” Dependence “develops when the neurons adapt to the repeated drug exposure” and are only able to fire normally when the drug is in the person’s system. This occurs when someone takes opioids because they are habit-forming and their use changes the way the brain works.

Opioid dependence also results in withdrawal symptoms, which can be both physical and psychological. They are not usually life-threatening but can be painful.

If you’re struggling with opioid dependence, call 800-466-0354 ( Who Answers?) now to speak with a treatment advisor. 

Why Does Opioid Dependence Occur?

A study from the NCBI states that “opioid dependence… stem[s] from changes in another important brain system, involving an area on the base of the brain––the locus ceruleus.” Neurons in the locus ceruleus create the chemical noradrenaline and “distribute it to other parts of the brain” where it helps to stimulate:

  • Wakefulness
  • Alertness
  • Blood pressure
  • Breathing

The process of growing opioid dependence within the brain of an opioid user essentially follows this pattern:

Opioid Dependence

Over time, the body becomes dependent on opiates and you feel unwell if you don’t take them.

  • Opioid molecules “link to receptors on brain cells” within the locus ceruleus,
  • The opioids suppress “the neurons’ release of noradrenaline.”
  • This results in the symptoms of drowsiness, low blood pressure, and slowed respiration.
  • Those who continue to take opioids and expose themselves to the effects will cause the “LC neurons [to] adjust by increasing their level of activity.”
  • The opioids are “offset by this heightened activity.”
  • The patient feels “more or less normal” as the “roughly normal amounts” of noradrenaline are released and counter with the opioids

Chemically, this is part of the explanation for opioid dependence. But someone who takes opioids for a long period of time will begin to feel as if he or she need the drug in order to function. It is a feeling that many people experience, whether they are abusing the drug or not.

Is Opioid Dependence Dangerous?

Those who become dependent on opioids often experience many problematic symptoms. This is why opioid medication is not always recommended for every type of patient. The NIDA states that “physical dependence is a normal adaptation to chronic exposure and is not the same as addiction.” That being said, it can be lead to other problems.

“Dependence is often accompanied by tolerance,” and, for some people, this can lead to addiction (NIDA). Patients who take more of the drug than they were prescribed or those who take the drug after they no longer need it are considered to be abusing opioids. This behavior, which can sometimes stem from dependence and tolerance, can lead to addiction and other possible dangers like overdose.

Who Becomes Dependent on Opioids?

Many different kinds of people can become dependent on opioids. Those who abuse the drug for a long period of time are sure to become dependent. According to the NLM, “about 9% of the population is believed to misuse opiates over the course of their lifetime, including illegal drugs like heroin and prescription pain medications such as Oxycontin.”

What many people do not know is those individuals who take prescription opioids as recommended by their doctors also become dependent on the drugs after taking them for a while. This is why doctors sometimes recommend that a person take the drug only when he or she needs it or for a certain period of time. Even then, dependence still occurs. The NLM states, though, that “the time it takes to become physically dependent varies with each individual,” so doctors are not always able to prevent this outcome.

Those who are not abusing opioids can become dependent on them, so developing a dependence on these types of drugs does not mean that you were doing something wrong. You will simply need to be treated for your dependence which is separate from opioid addiction treatment.

Opioids, Pain Management, and Addiction

Am I Dependent on Opioids?

Many people are not sure if they are dependent on opioids. As a matter of fact, the NLM states that “some people even withdraw from opiates after being given such drugs for pain while in the hospital without realizing what is happening to them. If you are not sure if you are dependent on opioids, ask yourself these questions:

  • Do I feel more normal once I have taken my opioid medication?
  • Do I need opioids to get out of bed in the morning or to fall asleep at night?
  • Do I rely on opioids to get me through a very difficult day (a stressful day at work, a meeting, a social engagement I am dreading)?
  • Have I noticed myself becoming less and less affected by the opioid medications I take? (Tolerance)
  • If I stop taking opioids, do I experience uncomfortable and painful symptoms? (Withdrawal)
  • Have I ever felt cravings for opioids? (Addiction)
  • Do I sometimes take these drugs just to avoid the symptoms?
  • Do I feel uncomfortable or not like myself when I am not taking opioids?

If you answered yes to these questions, you are likely already dependent on opioids and should be concerned about whether or not you may have built up a tolerance for them or even an addiction.

How Do You Treat Opioid Dependence?

Some patients who are dependent on opioids can be treated by their family doctors and weaned off the medication slowly. Others may need to go to a detox clinic for more intense treatment. Either way, opioid dependence is common and completely treatable. The concern lies with the possibility that one might begin to abuse opioids or become addicted to them as a further step. “For this reason, physicians need to be vigilant and attentive to their patients’ symptoms and level of functioning to treat them appropriately”.

The NIDA Teen states that “dependence means that the body gets used to the presence of the drug.” This is why it is more common and not as alarming as addiction and why it causes mild to painful withdrawal symptoms. It does occur in many cases of both medicinal opioid use and opioid abuse. While it may not be as dangerous as other outcomes, it can lead to other, more dangerous symptoms such as tolerance, abuse, and addiction.

Get help to overcome opioid dependence by calling 800-466-0354 ( Who Answers?) today! 

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