Opioids are powerful drugs that interact with our central nervous system to provide relief from pain. Unfortunately, opioids have a very high potential for abuse, which can lead to excessive use, addiction, and overdose. In fact, opioids are the drugs responsible for the nation’s opioid crisis, which claims an estimated 128 American lives each day. Luckily, knowing how opioids affect the brain and body can help neuroscientists and behavioral health experts better treat opioid addiction, which can help prevent overdose, save lives, and combat the current opioid epidemic.
What Are Opioids?
Opioids are a group of drugs derived from the opium poppy plant. Opioids can be prescription medications, often called “painkillers,” or illicit drugs commonly referred to as “street drugs.” Regardless of whether they’re legally prescribed or illegally sold, all opioids manipulate the brain to help relieve pain.
Doctors typically prescribe opioids for chronic pain. Sometimes, doctors use opioids to relieve pain after surgery or in response to traumatic sports or accident-related injury. Doctors may also prescribe opioids to help manage cancer-related pain. Some of the most commonly prescribed opioid painkillers include:
- Oxycodone, which can be prescribed under brand names such as OxyContin, Oxy, Percocet, Percodan, Roxicet, and Endocet
- Hydrocodone, which is typically prescribed under brand names such as Vicodin, Norco, Lortab, Lorcet, and Vicoprofen
- Codeine, which can be found in medicines such as Tylenol and Robitusson AC
- Morphine, which is also known as MS Contin and Roxanol
- Methadone, which is sometimes used to help medically treat opioid addiction
- Fentanyl, which can be prescribed by a doctor or consumed illegally. When prescribed by a doctor, fentanyl can be found in medicines such as Duragesic, Subys, Ionys, and Abstral. When referred to on the streets, fentanyl is also known as “Sublime” and “China White.”
Even though heroin is the only illicit opioid, street dealers frequently sell fentanyl illegally for recreational purposes. Though fentanyl isn’t illegal, recreational use of the substance is incredibly dangerous because even a tiny amount of fentanyl can cause an overdose, which is often fatal.
In addition to controlling pain, opioids can also make some users feel relaxed, happy, and “high.” Those immediate effects don’t last long, however, and are usually followed by adverse side effects such as:
- Difficulty breathing
How Do Opioids Work?
Opioids work by attaching themselves to proteins in the body called opioid receptors in the brain, spinal cord, intestinal tract, and other parts of the body. There are 3 types of opioid receptors in the human body:
- Mu receptors, which help regulate mood, pain, and reward triggers. When opioids attach themselves to mu receptors, they can relieve pain, provoke mood changes, trigger physical dependence, and cause respiratory changes.
- Delta receptors, which help regulate mood. When activated delta receptors produce analgesia, or the inability to feel pain.
- Kappa receptors, which help manage mood and reward responses. When opioids activate kappa receptors, they can relieve pain and increase urination. At the same time, kappa receptors can trigger dysphoria, a state of uneasiness and dissatisfaction, which can trigger the desire for more opioids.
As opioids attach themselves to opioid receptors in the body, they can block pain messages sent from the brain to the body. By doing this, opioids diminish the perception of pain, which is how opioids seemingly relieve pain. Unfortunately, opioids also interfere with the brain’s reward system, disrupting many of the brain’s delicate processes and vital functions.
What Do Opioids Do To Your Brain?
Opioids flood the brain with dopamine, a neurotransmitter or chemical messenger, that regulates movement, emotion, and pleasure. Even though the brain only needs a certain amount of dopamine to function properly, over time, the brain adjusts to the excessive amount of dopamine. When this happens, the brain is tricked into thinking that it needs opioids to function “normally.” Unfortunately, the continued presence of opioids starts to change the way the brain functions.
At first, opioids, which are depressants, slow down activity in the central nervous system, triggering:
But the longer opioids interfere with the brain, the more the brain continues to change. When used for a long time, opioids can cause:
- Hypoxia, a condition that happens when the brain doesn’t receive enough oxygen
- Hyperalgesia, an increased sensitivity to pain
How Opioids Affect Various Parts Of The Body
But the brain isn’t the only part of the body opioids affect. Using opioids can also impact our:
- Blood. Opioids can trigger vasodilation or the widening of blood vessels. When this happens, blood pressure drops. Low blood pressure can deprive the heart and brain of the oxygen they need to function properly.
- Digestive system. As depressants, opioids slow activity in the digestive system. This can cause constipation and increase users’ risk of small bowel obstruction, bowel perforations, and peritonitis, inflammation of abdominal tissue that can be life-threatening.
- Heart. Opioid use can contaminate the lining of the heart, which can lead to cardiovascular infection. Taking opioids can also cause bradycardia, or an unusually slow heart rate, or a fast and irregular heart rhythm.
- Lungs. Slowing activity in the central nervous system can make breathing difficult, which may cause respiratory arrest, a fatal condition that develops when there isn’t enough oxygen in the blood.
- Nervous system. Ironically, abusing opioids can have the opposite effect of pain relief, making users more sensitive to pain.
- Skeletal system. Opioid use can cause bone thinning and loss. This means that individuals abusing opioids are more likely to experience fractures and broken bones.
Contact Us Today To Overcome Opioid Abuse
Even though opioids can help relieve pain, they can also lead to addiction, change your brain, and cause several physical disorders and ailments. Our opioid treatment program can help you overcome opioid addiction and effectively manage pain. In addition to that, our unique approach to recovery can also help you:
- Revive your spirit
- Boost your confidence
- Regain your independence
- Restore relationships
- Develop new, healthier habits
- Obtain and maintain long-term sobriety
You can begin again. Contact Genesis Recovery today to begin or continue your recovery journey.