Opioid Use Disorder: Diagnosis, Signs, Causes & Treatment

Clinical Reviewer

Opioid Use Disorder Definition

Opioid Use Disorder (OUD) is the official name for addiction to opioid drugs. OUD is a chronic brain disease.  

Opioids include illegal drugs like heroin, as well as prescribed pain medications like Oxycodone, hydrocodone or morphine. OUD is also referred to as opioid addiction, opiate addiction, heroin addiction or pill addiction and falls under the umbrella of Substance Use Disorder (SUD).

Opioid Use Disorder Diagnosis

OUD is diagnosed when pain relief drugs are continued even though they cause harm – including relationship, job or legal issues.  The office DSM-5 diagnosis would be made by a doctor if a person has two or more of the following symptoms: 

Opioid Use Disorder Signs & Symptoms

The signs and severity of opioid use are usually hidden or downplayed to avoid consequences and judgment from others. It’s also a form of self-denial to continue to use opioids without having to feel guilty or confront the compulsion. 

Opioids are depressants, which means they slow down the body. People who are addicted to opioids tend to be sedated, drowsy and lack interest in things that they used to enjoy.

Behavioral Symptoms

Changes in a person’s behavior are often the earliest signs.

Families often sense something is wrong long before the person admits they have a problem. The concern of friends and family is a common warning sign.

Physical Symptoms

Opioids take a toll on the body and lead to physical symptoms.

Physical Symptoms of Opioid Withdrawal

People often try to cover up physical symptoms.  For example, they may start using eye drops frequently or wears sunglasses to hide red eyes or pinpoint pupils.

Psychological Symptoms

Mental health-related symptoms may have lead to drug use or arose because of the addiction.

Enviromental Signs

Environmental signs can be the most obvious but can be hard to find.

If you (or police) have caught their drug use before, it’s likely they have an issue, even if they claim they stopped. Most people require treatment and support to end drug or alcohol abuse.

Opioid Addiction Is A Disease

Opioid Use Disorder is a real disease as defined in the official DSM-5 mental health manual. 

In the simplest definition, a disease is something that changes cells in a negative way. Opioid addiction changes how cells in the brain communicate, which re-wires how a person thinks, feels and behaves.

Brain SPECT Scan Images: Health vs. Chroinc Opioid Use

Notice the holes across the cortical surface and decreased overall activity. Though, much of the brain damage can be reversed over time if opioid use is stopped.

Healthy Brain

7 Year Opioid Use

How Opioid Addiction Changes the Brain

1. Opioid Tolerance

With repeated opioid use, the brain adjusts to the flood of dopamine that causes feelings of pleasure. These brain cells become “numb”, which means you need more of the drug to feel the same effect. It also makes life without the drug less pleasurable.

2. Opioid Cravings

The brain is conditioned to desire opioids, even though the individual knows they are harmful and unhealthy. Opioid cravings are extremely powerful and can occur even after years of abstinence. 

3. Opioid Withdrawal / Dependence

The body becomes so used to opioids that it needs them to feel normal. If opioids aren’t present, brain chemistry is off balance resulting in symptoms like nausea, sweating and anxiety. Withdrawal symptoms are a sign that the brain is physically dependent on opioids.  

Patients describe cold-turkey opioid withdrawal as feeling like every bone in their body is breaking. Luckily, it’s nothing like that at an opioid detox center.

Opioid withdrawal can begin in as little as a few hours after the last dose and most people feel significantly better within a week. Though, it is possible to experience symptoms for weeks or even months, known as Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS.

Learn more: Symptoms of Opioid Withdrawal

Opioid Use Disorder Causes

There is no known cause of opioid use disorder. Many factors contribute.  What makes opioid addiction more likely is: 

The Opioid Epidemic

Opioid epidemic is a term used to describe the sharp increase in the use of prescription and non-prescription opioids in the U.S. in the 1900s. The second wave of the opioid epidemic began in 2010 and continues to be a serious public health crisis.

Overdose deaths have seen sharp increases with the rise of more potent opioids like fentanyl and ISO drug.  Sadly, the loss of life is even greater when complications like sepsis from heroin abscesses or newborn toxicity deaths are taken into account. 

How many people have opioid use disorder?

There are an estimated 2.1 million people in the United States with opioid use disorder. And, opioids are involved in around 70% of all fatal drug overdoses.

Demographics of Symetra's Opioid Use Disorder Patients

Pie charts showing 60% male gender 50% age 18-34

Treatment for Opioid Use Disorder

Treatment for Opioid Use Disorder usually involves a combination of medication and behavioral therapies.

The 3 FDA-Approved Medications for OUD

OUD medications work by satisfying the opioid receptors in the brain without giving off the same “high”.  Though, each medication interacts with opioid receptors differently.

Buprenorphine is the most common medication for the treatment of OUD. Naltrexone injections can be a better choice if a patient is already detoxed off of opioids. Methadone is a great option if a patient is not successful on buprenorphine. 

There are also off-label medications and medications to combat withdrawal or side-effects that are also used in OUD treatment. 

Medications Should Be Combined With Therapy

Therapy for OUD can be provided at inpatient rehabs, hospitals or outpatient clinics. Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) is a common outpatient treatment method.

To learn more about the treatment for Opioid Use Disorder, read:

Symetria doctors follow rigorous sourcing guidelines and cite only trustworthy sources of information, including peer-reviewed journals, court records, academic organizations, highly regarded nonprofit organizations, government reports and their own expertise with decades in the field.

Price, M. (2008, June). Genes matter in addiction. American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/monitor/2008/06/genes-addict

Center for Drug Evaluation and Research. (2019, February 14). Information about Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT). U.S. Food and Drug Administration. https://www.fda.gov/drugs/information-drug-class/information-about-medication-assisted-treatment-mat

Key Substance Use and Mental Health Indicators in the United States: Results from the 2016 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. (2016). Substance Abuse and Mental Services Administration. https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/NSDUH-FFR1-2016/NSDUH-FFR1-2016.htm

All content is for informational purposes only. No material on this site, whether from our doctors or the community, is a substitute for seeking personalized professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never disregard advice from a qualified healthcare professional or delay seeking advice because of something you read on this website.

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