When you continuously expose the body to a specific substance, eventually, the body develops a tolerance to the substance in question. This is true of almost anything that we introduce to our bodies, chemical in nature or not.
However, in specific situations where the substance is chemical in nature, a tolerance can quickly turn into a mental and even physical dependence. This is especially true in the case of opioid drugs.
Every day, millions of Americans suffer from the side effects of long-term exposure to opioid drugs. These side effects are some of the most intense and severe regarding illegal narcotics and prescription drugs.
This physical dependence has a significant effect on the mind as well, leading to a combination of physical and mental addiction that acts as a lock and chain in the life of a user. How do opioids work in the body, and why is long-term exposure to opioid drugs so dangerous?
How Do Opioids Work in the Body?
Opioids are intended to block pain in the bodies of individuals who consume them. These drugs work by activating the body’s opioid receptors located on various nerve cells throughout the body.
After attaching to the receptors, opioids block the pain messages that nerves send to the brain. The subsequent result is a reduction in pain for the individual taking the opioids.
Opioids actually affect several areas along the way, from the nerve to the brain. They affect the spinal cord, the brain itself, and the peripheral nervous system.
The body has three receptors with the ability to be activated by opioid agonists like morphine, hydrocodone, and heroin. These three receptors are known as mu, kappa, and delta receptors.
When the mu receptors are activated, the body releases dopamine, which is our brain’s chemical to activate feelings of pleasure. Individuals who experience pleasure normally look to repeat these feelings, which is what causes additional use, and eventually substance abuse disorder.
The Effect of Opioids on Emotional Regulation
Opioids also cause sedation and alter how individuals respond emotionally to pain. This, in turn, also affects how individuals respond to all emotions, causing the numbing effect that causes users not to feel.
Every opioid acts differently inside the body. For example, heroin makes its way through the liver and is emptied back into the bloodstream.
From here, it crosses the blood-brain barrier. It’s then converted back to morphine and connects with mu receptors much faster than actual morphine would. This is what makes heroin three-to-four times more potent than morphine.
Opiates are naturally occurring forms of opioids derived straight from the poppy plant. They don’t have synthetic origins like the opioids fentanyl, methadone, and others. What are some of the most common uses of opiates vs. opioids?
Opiates vs. Opioids in Common Uses
Opiates are natural forms of opioids and are typically used as analgesics for pain relief. Examples of opiates include morphine, codeine, and heroin.
Technically, opiates fall under the category of natural opioid analgesics. Any other substance is known as a semi-synthetic or a synthetic opioid analgesic. Semi-synthetic substances include oxycodone (Percocet, Oxycontin), hydrocodone (Vicodin), oxymorphone (Opana), and hydromorphone (Dilaudid).
Full synthetics include fentanyl, methadone, and Tramadol. Normally, all of these substances are prescribed for pain relief.
Relative Strengths of Opioids and Opiates
The main difference in the prescription is the level of pain for which each substance is prescribed. Percocet and Vicodin are typically prescribed for the breakthrough relief of pain. This is otherwise known as short-term pain relief.
Opana, Dilaudid, Oxycontin, and morphine are intended for patients with severe conditions such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, and other painful, chronic conditions. They’re also used in cases of acute, intense back pain post-surgery.
Fentanyl is usually exclusively reserved for severe physical pain and comes in the form of pain patches. When ingested orally, fentanyl is almost given exclusively to patients that are in near-death situations to keep them more comfortable.
Even when prescribed by physicians, opioids still have severe short-term effects and must be monitored to avoid overdose situations.
The Short Term Effects of Opioid Use
The short-term effects of opioids have the potential to be life-threatening, which is why it’s critical to adhere to the instructions recommended by prescribing physicians. These effects include:
- Dry mouth
- Slowed heart rate
- Slowed breathing
Additional side effects exist when kappa receptors are activated. This includes hallucinations, restlessness, and anxiety. When delta and mu receptors become activated, users may experience respiratory depression. These receptors stimulate the midbrain, and the result is the body’s failure to detect carbon dioxide levels, which is the stimulus for breathing.
The higher the dose of the opioid of choice, the more the midbrain is stimulated. This is what causes overdose, and the lack of oxygen is what eventually leads to death.
Additional side effects include constipation, sedation, urinary retention, and eventually tolerance. Tolerance leads to the long-term effects caused by opioids.
Are There Long-Term Effects of Opioid Use?
There are multiple long-term effects of opioid use. Long-term users have shown signs of deteriorating white brain matter.
Other risks include insomnia, chronic constipation, sexual dysfunction, and kidney disease. Opioid-induced constipation is one of the most commonly experienced side effects of long-term use.
This can lead to additional intestinal, stomach, and colon issues. It’s not uncommon for users to require manual intervention to assist in having a bowel movement.
Administration methods can also lead to long-term health issues. IV users put themselves at high risk of contracting HIV by sharing needles with other users.
Additionally, long-term opioid use causes the following:
- Poor decision making
- Poor ability of self-reflection and self-discipline
- Poor ability to respond to stress
It’s important to be aware of the signs of opioid misuse and opioid use disorder in someone you love if you want to help them avoid these long-term effects. The following section outlines what to look for in identifying abuse.
Signs of Opioid Misuse and Opioid Use Disorder
Individuals who fall into opioid abuse will normally display specific signs, alerting you to the presence of an abuse disorder. The following signs are the most commonly displayed side effects and behaviors of opioid abuse:
- Pupils appear to be extremely small the majority of the time
- Frequently scratching themselves
- Random periods of falling asleep or “nodding out”
- General change in mood or attitude
- Raspy voice
- General attitude of carelessness
- Cigarette burns on clothes or blankets
- General decline in hygiene or personal care
Individuals who display several of these signs could possibly be suffering from opiate abuse disorder. Eventually, when they run out of their opioid of choice, they will display signs of withdrawal. It’s important to be aware of these signs as well.
Do Opioids Cause Withdrawal Symptoms?
When individuals who abuse opioids cut their bodies off from these substances, the result is withdrawal. During detoxification, withdrawal can cause severe side effects that cause extreme pain and discomfort. Withdrawal leads to the following symptoms:
- Water eyes
- Frequent yawning
- Muscle aches
- Stomach cramps
- Cold chills
- Intense cravings
The intensity of these withdrawal symptoms often leads to relapse and makes a recovery quite difficult. Treatment for long-term opioid users is often necessary to make it through the most intense symptoms of detox.
Treatment for Long-Term Opioid Uses
Treatment for long-term opioid users should include several different stages with a personally crafted treatment plan. The normal path of treatment is outlined in the section below.
Medically-assisted detox gives clients the opportunity to eliminate all traces of opioids from their systems in a medically supervised environment. Clients have access to 24-hour medical care, including medications to decrease the severity of withdrawal symptoms.
A medically-assisted detox period is often safer than attempting at-home detox. Medical staff is on-hand to ensure that the side effects of withdrawal don’t cause additional medical challenges.
Inpatient and outpatient treatment are often the best options for long-term recovery from opioid abuse. Inpatient treatment includes residing at a live-in facility with a personalized treatment plan.
Mental health professionals will administer therapeutic methods, including dual-diagnosis and other behavioral health treatments. This is effective at treating substance abuse disorder because these methods remedy the underlying causes of the addiction.
Group recovery sessions are also available, as well as healthy meal options. As graduation approaches, clients work closely with counselors to craft an aftercare plan to prevent future relapses.
Aftercare includes continued attendance at mental health clinics and group recovery meetings. A strong support system is also critical.
Outpatient treatment includes many of the same elements. The only difference is clients are able to attend from their homes for anywhere from nine to 20 hours per week.
Long-term Opioid Use and Lasting Recovery Is Possible
With the right team by your side and a strong support system, long-term opioid use and lasting recovery are possible. At Circle of Hope Treatment, we provide mental health treatment and education for clients seeking recovery.
We’ve helped countless clients suffering even the most profound opioid addictions achieve long-term recovery through a combination of inpatient and outpatient treatment plans. Contact one of our admissions specialists today to find out more about how we can help you conquer your opioid use disorder, and let us start your customized plan to obtain freedom from opioids today!