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Myths About Opioids

Peter Manza, PhD profile image
Reviewed By Peter Manza, PhD • Updated Aug 13, 2023 • 6 cited sources

Myths about opioids are rampant, and they often prevent people from seeking out treatment for their opioid misuse.

Myths can be benign, blurring the facts to make difficult issues easier to live with. But some myths about opioid use disorder (OUD) cause harm. When these falsehoods are perpetuated, it can result in struggling people being treated with less compassion. 

These are just some of the myths about opioids we’ve heard: 

Myth 1: OUD Is Voluntary

Some people believe those with OUD keep using drugs because they like them. Selfishness, they say, is at the core of substance use disorders. 

While people have different reasons for trying an opioid the first time, ongoing use could stem from reasons that have nothing to do with selfishness or choice. Few people want to continue harming their life through opioid misuse.

Researchers say opioids change the brain so dramatically they can spot signs of an OUD by looking at brain scans.[1] Doctors call OUD a “brain disease” for this reason. Ongoing drug exposure changes the way vital tissues work, and those alterations drive people back to using drugs, even when they no longer want them. 

Myth 2: Opioids Are Safe for Everyone to Use

Opioids like Vicodin and OxyContin originate in pharmacies and are administered by doctors. Some people believe these drugs are safe because they come from the medical establishment. 

Opioids are strong drugs that alter the brain. Over time, people must take more opioids to achieve the same result. This process is the same, whether people take prescription painkillers or street drugs like heroin. 

Eventually, frequent opioid users take too much, and they are at very high risk of overdose. More people die due to overdoses of prescription and nonprescription opioids than HIV infections, gun violence or car accidents.[2] These drugs are certainly not safe for long-term use for most people, and opioid overdose can often be fatal. 

Myth 3: Only People Who Misuse Street Drugs Develop OUD

Prescription painkillers and street drugs latch to the same brain receptors, trigger the same responses and do the same kind of damage. From a chemical perspective, there are few differences between prescription and illicit opioids. 

OUDs regularly develop in people who use prescription painkillers. From 2002 to 2011, about 11 million people misused their prescription drugs.[3] They might take higher doses than their doctors recommend, take them more frequently than prescribed, crush or chew their pills, or otherwise manipulate their doses. 

Some people who start an OUD by misusing painkillers switch to street drugs in time. Heroin and other substances are stronger, cheaper and easier to get. When they are unable to get more painkillers from their doctors, street drugs provide an easier alternative. 

But some people never resort to using street drugs. They misuse their prescription painkillers, sometimes for years, and nurture their OUD in that way. Because they use “legal” drugs, they may feel they don’t have a problem–even though it is still very much a dangerous OUD.

Myth 4: People Using Medications to Get Sober Substitute One Drug for Another

In Medication for Addiction Treatment (MAT) programs, people use therapies like Suboxone to amend chemical imbalances caused by drug misuse. With the help of prescriptions, people feel healthy enough to focus on therapy and get better. 

Experts are clear that MAT isn’t simply “substituting one drug for another”.[4] Instead, these medications correct a severe chemical imbalance that, if left untreated, pushes people to return to drug misuse, even when they don’t want to do so. 

People with some types of diabetes need chemicals to replace those their bodies no longer make. No one accuses people with diabetes of misusing a drug selfishly. Instead, we think of them as caring for their illness responsibly.

People who use MAT follow the same approach. They’ve been diagnosed with a treatable illness they’re addressing with pharmaceutical solutions managed by a doctor. They deserve the same amount of dignity and respect.

Myth 5: You Can Spot an OUD Immediately

Experts say substance use disorders affect people of all ages and all walks of life.[5] Anyone you work with, live with or meet could develop an opioid use disorder. 

Some people with chronic conditions lose everything and experience severe issues like homelessness or poverty. They are public victims of OUD, and they are relatively easy for anyone to see. 

But some people with OUD manage to hold down jobs, raise children and support their families. They can hide their illness for years without anyone realizing something is wrong. They are suffering too, but they are suffering alone. 

Never assume someone you know is too wealthy, young or successful to develop an opioid use disorder. The problem could happen to anyone at any time. The only shared factor is the exposure to opioids. 

Myth 6: OUD Can’t Be Treated

OUD is a chronic condition, meaning that people with symptoms often struggle with them for years. Some people are at risk of relapse for the rest of their lives. But, like many other chronic conditions, OUD can be controlled with medications and therapy.[6] 

With the right treatment approach, people can avoid drug relapse and all of the terrible problems associated with ongoing drug misuse. They just need to take the first step toward that assistance.

If you or someone you love has OUD, you can get help from a qualified treatment program and get better. Reach out to us today to learn about our telemedicine addiction treatment program here at Bicycle Health. We can tell you more and help you determine whether our approach is right for you or someone you love.

Reviewed By Peter Manza, PhD

Peter Manza, PhD received his BA in Psychology and Biology from the University of Rochester and his PhD in Integrative Neuroscience at Stony Brook University. He is currently working as a research scientist in Washington, DC. His research focuses on the role ... Read More

  1. What Does It Mean When We Call Addiction a Brain Disorder. National Institute on Drug Abuse. March 2018. Accessed March 2023.
  2. Opioid Safety. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality. September 2019. Accessed March 2023.
  3. Opioid Addiction. StatPearls. September 2022. Accessed March 2023.
  4. Medications for Substance Use Disorders. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. February 2023. Accessed March 2023.
  5. Mental Health and Substance Use Disorders. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. November 2022. Accessed March 2023.
  6. Effects of Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) for Opioid Use Disorder on Functional Outcomes: A Systematic Review. Rand Health Quarterly. June 2020. Accessed March 2023.

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