Opioids are narcotic drugs that block pain signals in the brain and central nervous system. Opioids are man-made or synthetic forms of natural opiates derived from the opium poppy plant.
Opioids and opiates both work similarly in how they reduce pain and decrease discomfort in the body.
Individuals who have suffered injury, just had surgery, or have chronic pain may be prescribed opioid medications.
Opioids can be either short- or long-acting in duration. Short-acting opioids may be combined with an additional pain reliever, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Generally, these medications reduce pain within 15 to 30 minutes.
What Opioids Do To The Brain
Opioids bind to proteins in the brain’s chemical receptors. Even after a short period of time, opioids can chemically alter the health and function of the brain.
Opioids change the way the brain’s reward system manages pain and pleasure signals. When these chemicals take effect, they often lead to pain-numbing and euphoric effects.
When an individual takes these medications, the brain is flooded with dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that regulates emotion, feelings of pleasure, and movement. These chemical changes lead to feelings of euphoria.
If someone becomes addicted to or dependent on opioids, this is caused by chemical changes in the brain.
The brain adapts to the presence of opioids. Over time, the brain loses its ability to function and regulate itself without them being present.
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What Opioids Do To The Body
Opioid medications have several effects on the body.
When someone misuses or takes opioids longer than recommended, it can lead to damage of the:
- heart — infection of the heart lining
- digestive system — bowel obstruction, perforation, peritonitis, constipation, and nausea
- immune system — infection and increased vulnerability to infection due to decreased immune system response
- liver — shared needles during injection can lead to blood borne diseases
- lungs — decreased rate of respiration can lead to respiratory arrest and damage due to decreased oxygen levels
- nervous system — changes in the way the brain and central nervous system can lead to increased sensitivity to pain
Side Effects Of Opioids
All prescription opioids can lead to addiction, chemical dependency, or overdose, especially when misused. Opioid use can lead to several side effects, even when used under the guidance of a physician.
These side effects may include:
- chemical tolerance — as the brain and body adapts to the presence of opioids, an individual may require higher doses of the drug to gain the same level of pain relief or effect
- physical dependence — an individual may experience physical symptoms of withdrawal when stopping an opioid medication
depression and mood swings
- indigestion, constipation, or nausea
- weight loss or gain
- overdose and coma
Treatment For Opioid Addiction
Misuse of opioid medications can quickly lead to chemical dependency and addiction. Further, opioid misuse contributes to thousands of recorded drug overdoses, per year.
If you or a loved one suffer from opioid addiction, our addiction specialists may be able to help. Please call our helpline to learn more about treatment options near you.
Addiction Resource aims to provide only the most current, accurate information in regards to addiction and addiction treatment, which means we only reference the most credible sources available.
These include peer-reviewed journals, government entities and academic institutions, and leaders in addiction healthcare and advocacy. Learn more about how we safeguard our content by viewing our editorial policy.
- American Hospital Association — Prescription Opioids: What You Need To Know
- National Institute of Health — How Opioid Drugs Activate Receptors
- National Center for Biotechnology Information — Opioid complications and side effects
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: MedlinePlus — Opioid Misuse And Addiction