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Why recovering from opioid addiction is so hard

Those who have never struggled with addiction to alcohol, drugs or prescription painkillers sometimes make the mistake of thinking getting help "cures" people of their cravings. With therapy and perhaps medical intervention, that addiction should be gone, right?

Those who own up to their addiction and actually seek treatment know better. If last week's reports of singer Demi Lovato's relapse into opioid addiction is anything, it's a reminder that getting sober is no easy feat, even if you have all the money and support from family, friends and fame to help you. So why is getting clean so hard to do?

Opioids rewire your brain chemistry

Opioids have been used for centuries to treat chronic pain, illness and depression. Opioids essentially block pain receptors and produce calming effects in your brain by mimicking the natural neurotransmitters that normally do so. So, they essentially fool your brain into thinking you're ok when you're really not.

Opioids also flood the brain with the biochemical dopamine. Dopamine is released whenever we experience feelings of pleasure, joy and well-being. It functions as a neurochemical "reward" for experiencing good things, like hugging a close friend or eating delicious food.

The brain naturally wants to ensure that you repeat life-sustaining "good things," so it makes a note of what activities or sensations produce dopamine. As you can probably guess, this is how addiction to modern opioids like codeine, hydrocodone (Vicodin), oxycodone (Percocet) or fentanyl can start. The more of a "good thing" you have, the more you start craving it – and the more of it you'll need to get the same euphoric effect.

Without careful supervision, then, those taking prescription drugs for legitimate reasons can quickly spiral out of control. It literally takes a chemical rewiring of your brain to overcome addiction to opioids.

Addiction has no 'cure'

Drug addiction is a chronic disease, much like asthma or heart disease. It has no "cure" but it can be successfully managed with medical and therapeutic help. Like any addiction, recovery from drug addiction takes hard work, not all of it physical. It takes strong psychological willpower to overcome the urge to reach for "a quick hit" instead of finding a healthier option for coping with life's problems. The most severe cases require medical intervention.

Moreover, each person's case is unique to their individual biochemical make-up and past history with drug abuse. What works for one person may not work for another, so it takes patience to find the right mix of medications, therapy and coping skills.

Relapses are almost expected

Another problem is that relapses can be highly discouraging, both for the patient and for their support networks. Like any other chronic illness, it takes diligence to stick with a recovery and treatment plan.

The danger is that a relapse could prove life-threatening, as in Demi Lovato's case. "Just one more" can turn into a deadly overdose that can upset the delicate progress made thus far. 

But that doesn’t mean recovery is no longer possible. It simply means it's time to reevaluate the treatment plan and modify it accordingly. Just because you or a loved one may have relapsed, it doesn't mean the treatment has "failed." In fact, it's estimated that 40 to 60 percent of recovery patients will relapse at least once. As a chronic disease, recovery from opioid addiction – or any drug addiction, really – will likely be a lifelong ordeal.

Moving forward

Despite these difficulties, there is hope for those seeking treatment and their loved ones. Countless resources are available to help you on the road to recovery, including legal ones if drug addiction has put you on the wrong side of the law. Taking steps to get clean only helps your case, not to mention your quality of life.

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