Skip to main content

Rethink Opioid Addiction logo

It's time to focus on the science, and fight the stigma.

For US residents only.

Science shows us we need to rethink opioid addiction. It isn't about weakness. It isn't about a personal failure. It's a disease that hijacks and physically changes the brain, driving people to put opioids above everything else.

Rethink AddictionIt's not about willpower

Opioid addiction is a Substance Use Disorder. It is not a moral weakness; it is a chronic disease called Opioid Use Disorder (OUD). It changes and rewires the brain, making it hard for people to quit, even when addiction is destroying their lives. Even when they try again and again.

Can our brains drive us to addiction?

Yes. Like other addictions, opioid addiction happens when a biological system in our brains, the Reward System, is hijacked by opioids.

The Reward System drives us to repeat natural things we enjoy, or need to do to survive, like eating when we're hungry. This triggers the release of a chemical called dopamine in the brain, which "rewards" us with a sense of pleasure.

Opioids may trigger a flood of dopamine, with powerful effects on the brain

After time, the brain may be rewired, needing this higher level of dopamine. In fact, over time the brain requires more and more dopamine just to feel "normal."

The cycle of opioid addiction

Once the brain has been rewired by opioids, a person may feel trapped in a continuous cycle.

Opioid Use

Triggers a sense of pleasure in the brain

Learn more about what opioid use does in the brain.

Taking opioids,
illicit or prescription,
may give a feeling of heightened pleasure. Over time, things that used to be enjoyable can't compete with the
effect of opioids.


Uncomfortable or painful symptoms after not using

Learn more about withdrawal symptoms.

Withdrawal can
start just twelve hours after taking opioids and can last over two weeks. Trying to avoid withdrawal symptoms can become all-consuming and drive continued use.


Strong, even overwhelming, desire for opioids

Learn more about how cravings develop.

Over time, the brain may crave more and more opioids. And cravings can be triggered by anything associated with using.

Looking closer at the brain

The cycle of addiction physically affects multiple parts of the brain. This is why quitting opioids may seem out of a person's control.

Rethink RecoveryIt's about potential for long-term change

Because OUD is a chronic medical disease, it's a long-term process to help the brain recover. It takes time without using illicit opioids to stop craving them, and be satisfied with natural levels of dopamine again.

A relapse can happen, even if it's just a slip-up. But it doesn't have to mean going back to "square one." Recovery is an ongoing process of change in which people work to improve their health and behaviors, and strive to reach their full potential.

Rethink TreatmentIt's about science

Currently, only 27.8% of people with OUD
are being treated
for it.

Although no single pathway to recovery is right for everyone, research has shown people seeking recovery from opioid problems are more successful when they combine a prescribed medication used to treat addiction with professional counseling and a strong support system —SAMHSA

OUD treatment approaches

There are many ways people can work with others or on their own to help break free from opioid addiction. Some enter rehab. Other treatments include detox, 12-step facilitation, cognitive behavioral therapy and more. But there is another approach.

Medications for Opioid Use Disorder (MOUD)

MOUD is a proven treatment approach for people with OUD. It uses medication at appropriate doses with the goal of maintaining treatment and long-term recovery. In the past, you may have seen this called MAT, or medication-assisted treatment.

3 types of MOUDs:

  • Methadone
  • Buprenorphine
  • Naltrexone

Which MOUD is used can be different for each person and can even change over time.

How MOUDs can help:

  • Manage the physical symptoms of withdrawal, cravings, and rewarding effects of opioids
  • Address the physical changes opioid addiction has caused in the brain
  • Not replace a drug for a drug. There are medications that, when taken as prescribed, reduce withdrawal and control cravings without the sense of "high" that comes from illicit opioids
  • Address behavioral and social components of addiction with improved social functioning and staying on treatment

Counseling or other behavioral interventions should be used in addition to medication to help with aspects of recovery that medication can’t, such as:

  • Helping people engage in treatment, be incentivized to not use opioids, and manage behaviors and attitudes so they can work on recovery
  • Addressing the behavioral aspects of opioid addiction so they can get back to a healthy functioning life

While counseling is an important part of a person’s care plan, research has shown that medication is key for people with OUD, with or without counseling. It’s because of the high importance of medication that the term MOUD is now being used.

Did you know that MOUDs May help to reduce overdose relapse

Think about other resources

If you or someone you know is struggling with opioid addiction, there are treatments and healthcare professionals who can help. Talk to your healthcare provider to learn more about MOUD and other resources in your area.