With growing concern about rates of opiate addiction in the United States, discussions of addiction have entered our everyday discourse. However, many people in the popular media broadly label opiate users as “addicts” without qualifying what addiction really is.
Not all people who take opiates are “addicts.” Not all people who take opiates are “junkies” or “crackheads”. These terms are dismissive of the struggles that actual patients with opiate dependence are going through.
There is a difference between opiate dependence and opiate addiction. Understanding these distinctions is an important step in extending proper treatment options to those in need.
The Opiate Dependent Patient
The terms patients and addicts need to be distinguished. There is a popular stereotype that people who take opiates for a prolonged period of time must be opiate addicts. This could not be further from the truth.
Some people are able to successfully use opiate medications for pain management over relatively long periods of time. Although they may develop some level of opioid physical dependence, they are not necessarily suffering from addiction.
Patients are people who use opiates, often under the close guidance of a treating physician. Depending on their medical condition, they may need to take opiate painkillers for months or even years. However, they do not develop the cravings and compulsive drug use that are typical of addicted individuals.
The Difference Between Patients and Addicts
On the other hand, opiate addicts are not patients. Opiate addiction is a syndrome in which a person feels a strong urge to use opioids. People who are addicted to opiates may use opioid painkillers beyond sans doctor guidance, often for off-label purposes or seeking acquisition of opioids. Alternatively, they might seek numerous prescriptions from different doctors to fuel their addiction.
These actions sets addicts apart from patients. Addicts use opiates beyond the scope of a legitimate medical need, patients use opiates for legitimate medical purposes within the means of a prescribing physician.
Empathizing with Patients and Addicts
It is important to distinguish between patients and addicts. Although they may both take opiates, they respectively do so for different reasons. Yet, at the same time, we need to be able to empathize with the struggles of patients and addicts. Regardless of the reason one started or continue to use opiates, preconceived judgmental positions from society will just keep individuals ashamed and scared to seek the treatment they so desperately need.