Fentanyl overdose deaths continue to rise in the United States, leading to a deadly third wave of the opioid epidemic. People with fentanyl addiction are suffering. Learn more about the best treatment for fentanyl addiction, which focuses on its triggers and root causes.
Drug overdose remains one of the most common causes of accidental death in the United States, with 67,000 overdose deaths reported in 2018. Almost 70% of these deaths are related to opioids. Although prescription painkillers and heroin are also part of this category of drugs, most opioid overdoses involve synthetic opioids like fentanyl. A sharp rise in fentanyl use caused public health experts to sound the alarm regarding this deadly threat.
What Is Fentanyl?
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid, meaning it is produced in a laboratory setting different from heroin, resulting from naturally-occurring poppy plants. In medical settings, fentanyl is used as an anesthetic, powerful painkiller after surgery or cancer-related pain. The medication is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, meaning it has extremely powerful effects. It binds to receptors faster and in much smaller doses than other narcotic opioids.
The Rise of Fentanyl Addiction and Overdose Deaths
Fentanyl used to represent only a small fraction of opioid overdoses. In the 1990s and early 2000s, prescription painkillers like oxycodone (Oxycontin, Percocet) or hydrocodone (Vicodin) were the primary drivers of opioid overdoses. That began to change as the CDC changed its prescribing guidelines for medical providers.
People struggling with opiate addiction began to turn to heroin and synthetic opioids instead. For example, West Virginia, which is at the heart of the opioid epidemic, showed a sharp increase in fentanyl-related deaths. Comparing 2005-2014 to 2015-2017, deaths involving prescription opioids decreased by 75%. Meanwhile, fentanyl-related deaths jumped up by 122% over the same period. This trend rapidly spread across the country.
There are several reasons for the rise of fentanyl use. Synthetic opioids like fentanyl are often manufactured in Chinese laboratories, where their production is legal. They then make their way to Mexico, where drug cartels traffic them across the southern U.S. border. From there, fentanyl makes its way across the entire country. Drug dealers often cut their product with fentanyl, which is cheaper and more potent. As prescription painkillers become less available in medical settings, people turn to alternatives drugs, like fentanyl.
Fentanyl’s potency is part of what makes it so dangerous and deadly. A tiny amount of fentanyl can cause a rapid decrease in breathing and heart rate. In some cases, drug users are unaware that their product contains this deadly drug, and by using the same amount of heroin as they typically do, they may unknowingly get a dose far more potent than they realized. The presence of fentanyl in other drugs often leads to an unintentional overdose with deadly consequences.
The Effect of COVID-19 on Fentanyl in the U.S.
Not surprisingly, Wuhan, China, is one of the epicenters for fentanyl production. It was also the city in which the COVID-19 pandemic began. China’s lockdown of the city caused an interruption of fentanyl production. Online suppliers, or should we say, internet drug dealers, in early 2020, said that there was no supply available. Unfortunately, this did not have the predicted dampening effect in U.S. markets. Most U.S. fentanyl comes from Mexican drug cartels, who had vast stockpiles of the drug. The cartels kept flooding the United States with the deadly drug. In fact, given the enormous mental health strain caused by COVID-19, fentanyl overdose rates have increased in early 2020 despite the shutdown in Chinese production.
What Makes Fentanyl So Addictive?
Like all opioids, fentanyl binds to opioid receptors throughout the body. There are many receptors in the GI system, so the use of opioids also causes gastrointestinal side effects. There are also critical opioid receptors in the brain. Fentanyl binds tightly to these receptors, causing a boost of dopamine, the chemical that controls feelings of reward, pleasure, and relaxation.
Molecules like fentanyl fit into opioid receptors like a key fit into a lock. However, over time these receptors become less likely to activate as with the same strength as they did initially-this change is the biological root of tolerance. Tolerance develops as a person needs higher and higher doses of the drug to achieve the same effect. Furthermore, as the individual continues taking this drug, the body’s opioid receptors get used to having opioid molecules floating around, which physically becomes a “new normal.” In other words, all body functions adjust to the presence of opioids. When the opioids are no longer present (such as when someone tries to quit cold turkey), the body enters into a state of confusion. This confusion is what leads to withdrawal. Withdrawal symptoms present itself by causing the individual to feel diarrhea, muscle pain, tearful eyes, runny nose, sweating, restlessness, and rapid heart rate.
Collectively, tolerance and withdrawal symptoms are known as a physiological dependence on opioids. That means that the body comes to depend on opioids to function normally. Most people who take opioids for an extended period will develop dependence.
What is Addiction to Fentanyl?
Fentanyl addiction is different from dependence. Addiction refers to a set of behaviors that cause a person to use opioids compulsively. Addiction causes a person to experience cravings for the drug. He or she will go to great lengths to find and use the drug. Work, personal relationships, and other obligations suffer.
Addiction doesn’t arise out of anywhere. Certain people are genetically predisposed to experience drug addiction, while others are victims of circumstances. Although some studies say that having a family member with addiction increases the chance of someone suffering from the same issues, mental health issues are also predominant factors. Many people first start abusing opioids to numb physical pain or emotional pain. Those suffering from trauma, depression, anxiety, stress, and other mental health problems often feel attraction to the numbing effects of opioid drugs.
While opioids might seem to work short term, they are a very poor long-term strategy for managing mental health. The harmful physical and emotional side effects of opioid addiction take their toll, adding an additional problem to an already distressful situation. That is why it is so essential to find an effective treatment for fentanyl addiction. One that is not just going to solve the physical issues, but will be able to diagnose and guide the emotional components. By taking action to address the underlying causes of fentanyl addiction, one can someone achieve long-term sobriety.
Best Detox Treatment
Effective treatment for fentanyl addiction begins by treating physiological dependence. That means undergoing a complete and successful fentanyl detox. Detox clears the body of opioid molecules, allowing it to reset to its normal, drug-free state. While going cold turkey comes with unpleasant withdrawal symptoms, medical detox helps to ease that discomfort. In a medical detox protocol, particular medications clear opioid molecules from their receptors. Performing the fentanyl detox in a medically supervised hospital environment is safer and more humane than going cold turkey. In a hospital, patients receive medical withdrawal management to ensure detox success, safety, and a positive outcome.
After fentanyl detox is complete, the body is ready to begin the healing process. At the Waismann Method Center, patients transfer to the exclusive Domus Retreat for the next step of their journey. At this point, one focus is on allowing the body and mind to heal from the stress of opioid dependence. Simultaneously, a person is now ready to engage in ways to achieve a healthier path. A healthy path means focusing on mood, emotional functioning, life stressors, and other triggers that drive cravings. Only by addressing these root causes of fentanyl addiction can someone truly heal.
Not all opioid treatment programs are the same. Too often, patients do not have access to medical professionals and the resources needed to achieve an opioid-free state. Also, rehab centers mostly focus on “addiction” symptoms while forgetting to treat the individual in front of them. This lack of individualized care often leads to relapse soon after completing rehab, starting the addiction cycle again. To entirely fight the battle against the opioid epidemic, we need greater access to treatments that work. This means improving access for medical fentanyl detox programs followed by supportive mental health care.