Can Opioid Addiction Be Cured

Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price made two claims about opioid addiction that are contradicted by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which is part of the department Price heads.

Price made his claims on May 9 while in West Virginia, the state with the highest rate of opioid-related overdoses in the country.

  • Price said, “Folks need to be cured so they can be productive members of society.” But there is currently no cure for addiction to opioids, or any other drug. The NIDA says “addiction is treatable and can be successfully managed.”
  • Speaking about treatment, Price claimed, “If we’re just substituting one opioid for another, we’re not moving the dial much.” But using opioids such as buprenorphine to combat addiction to more dangerous opioids including heroin is effective, say experts and the NIDA.

While there is no cure for opioid addiction, medication-assisted treatments, including other opioids, “save lives” and “help to stabilize individuals, allowing treatment of their medical, psychological, and other problems so they can contribute effectively as members of families and of society,” says the NIDA.

Nationally, the rate of opioid-related deaths increased from around 3 per 100,000 people in 2000 to more than 10 per 100,000 people in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Over 33,000 people died of opioid-related overdoses in 2015 alone. This includes both illicit opioids such as heroin and prescription opioids including oxycodone and hydrocodone.

Cure for Addiction?

Price visited Charleston, West Virginia, on a “‘listening tour’ that aims to gather solutions to the nation’s opioid drug crisis,” reported the Charleston Gazette-Mail. The newspaper said that Price “touted faith-based programs, while showing less support for medication-assisted programs,” when asked about drug-treatment options.  

Price, May 9: If we’re just substituting one opioid for another, we’re not moving the dial much. Folks need to be cured so they can be productive members of society and realize their dreams.

According to experts, including the HHS’ own drug abuse agencies, substance use disorder can be successfully treated, but it can’t be cured. This is because of the way addiction affects the psychology and brain of an individual.

First, to be diagnosed with opioid addiction, or substance use disorder more broadly, an individual must meet at least two out of 11 criteria, including developing a tolerance to a drug, experiencing withdrawal symptoms after not taking a drug and not fulfilling responsibilities because of drug use.

Developing a tolerance to opioids means the same amount of the drug will produce less of a euphoric effect. Withdrawal symptoms can include anxiety, sweating, muscle aches, diarrhea and vomiting.

After a person develops a physiological dependence on a drug, tolerance and withdrawal make it difficult to quit, Hilary Smith Connery, an expert in the treatment of opioid use disorders at Harvard Medical School, told us over the phone. But drug addiction is also a psychological disorder. 

“We have no cure for substance abuse disorder in general” because it “lives” in a person’s “memories,” she told us. Even after they’ve stopped taking a drug and withdrawal symptoms subside, people have “triggers associated with the addiction process” that might cause an otherwise drug-free person to use again, she added. Triggers might include seeing a drug-using friend or a specific place where drug use took place, or being in an emotional state, such as stress or depression.

In other words, there’s “no cure” for drug addiction, “because you can’t undo memories,” Connery said.

Chronic drug-use, including opioid use, also changes the brain, experts have found.

To produce their euphoric effect, opioids affect the levels of dopamine in the brain, a chemical vital to what scientists call the reward circuitry. These neural pathways regulate a person’s motivation and incentive to repeat a certain act, let it be eating a particular food, doing a drug or having sex.

Over time, drug use can change how these neural circuits function, making it more difficult for individuals to experience pleasure without the drug, manage stress and control impulses, says the NIDA. “These changes can remain long after you stop using the drug,” adds the Mayo Clinic.

Connery also drew parallels between substance use disorder and type 2 diabetes — a comparison other researchers have made as well.

For one, like type 2 diabetes, substance use disorder doesn’t come about solely because of a person’s choices or environment — an individual’s genetics may make him or her more susceptible to addiction. Researchers have linked multiple genes to opioid addiction.

Type 2 diabetes, like substance use disorder, is also a chronic condition that can be successfully treated, but not cured.

Type 2 diabetes develops when the body can’t produce enough insulin, a hormone, or becomes resistant to insulin. But by eating healthy, exercising and potentially taking medication, the level of insulin in the body can be kept “closer to normal,” says the Mayo Clinic.

Similarly, “Overcoming an addiction and staying drug-free require a persistent effort,” explains the Mayo Clinic. As we’ll discuss in the next section, treatment for drug addiction includes taking medications, seeing a therapist or joining a support group.

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Over 33,000 people died of opioid-related overdoses in 2015 alone. Can Opioid Addiction Be Cured? According to experts can be treated, but can’t be cured.