10 Jan Long-Term Effects of Opioids on The Body
Opioids can have medicinal value to humans and are not necessarily detrimental when used under the supervision of a personal physician. Even synthetic opioids used for anesthesia or pain management can have life-saving effects when taken as prescribed. Their harm, however, lies in how easily they can be misused and abused; leading to a whole host of negative repercussions including opioid addiction, long-term damage, and even death.
There are some people currently who are more predisposed to fall prey to opioid abuse and misuse as a result of genetics, environment, and psychology. These and other factors lead them to pursue the euphoric high that is a side effect of opioid intake. Thanks to modern medicine, big pharma, and the shift in society’s view on treating pain, the US is facing a major opioid crisis across the country.
Although this increase signifies that more citizens have been aided by the pain-relieving properties of prescriptions—making post-surgery and cancer treatment easier to manage—it has also caused an explosion in rates of addiction, hospital visits, and rates of overdose. Now, opioids take more than 70,000 lives a year, and an American has a greater chance of dying by opioid overdose than by a car accident. Because of this, it is essential that everyone is aware of the long-term effects of opioids on the body so that they may treat these drugs with the caution they deserve. If you or a loved one needs help for an opioid addiction, just remember you are not alone.
Humans and Opioids
Human beings have consumed natural opioids, refined from the seemingly innocuous poppy plant, for thousands of years. For millenia, people have chewed, drank, and smoked the substance for pain relief and feelings of tranquility, ease, and bliss. Much of this is due to the way opioids work to slow down the heart and respiratory system, mimicking the calming effects of sleep or heavy relaxation.
Human-made opioids were first synthesized from the poppy in the 1870’s by a British chemist named Charles Romley Alder Wright. During his quest for a non-addictive opioid, he created hundreds of different opioid compounds. Ironically, in the name of this vain pursuit, he wound up synthesizing heroin out of morphine, thus creating one of the most addictive and deadly drugs known to man.
These days, there are a plethora of prescription opioid medications and street drugs that can be used or abused. These include:
- Dilaudid – Hydromorphone
- Fentanyl – Duragesic
- Hydrocodone/Paracetamol – Vicodin
- Meperidine – Pethidine
Opioids and the Body
The body’s central nervous system (CNS), is made up of the brain, respiratory system, and the cardiovascular system. Opioids principally act by binding to opioid receptors that can be found throughout:
- The central nervous system
- The peripheral nervous system (PNS)
- The Spine
- Gastrointestinal tract
Both naturally produced and foreign opioids act by attaching to these opioid receptors, which in turn facilitate the somatic and psychoactive effects of the opioids, creating the following general effects:
- Pain relief
- A slackening of the heart and lungs
Dopamine neurotransmitters not only alleviate pain signals sent by the CNS but also deliver messages that stimulate feelings of reward and pleasure. Prescription drugs alter the brain’s reward system, overflowing it with dopamine.
Over millions of years of evolution within the human brain, the reward system developed to award a person with feelings of pleasure for obeying biological drives such as exercising, eating food, drinking water, and engaging in sexual activity. While this reward system is great for natural opioid production, it can be artificially altered by overstimulation via synthetic opioids. As a result of this pleasurable compensation of dopamine, the brain and body begin craving and rewarding further behavior that leads to more opioids in the system.
The Effects of Opioids
Opioids can be taken orally as a pill, smoked, or taken intravenously. Depending on the method of administration, they can begin to produce effects almost instantly. Such short-term effects include:
- Decreased mental processing
- Depressed breathing
- Pain relief
Long-Term Effects of Opioids on the Body
As time passes and opioid abuse continues and worsens, there are serious long–term effects of opioids on the body.
Developing a Tolerance
The human body is amazingly adaptable to both internal and external inputs. If a person regularly consumes any type of substance or alcohol, the body will labor to not only respond to but also counteract these effects until it eventually grows accustomed to its steady presence. In practically no time at all, this becomes the body’s new normal. Suddenly, the absence of the substance causes the body to forget how to function without it.
Any type of opioid, whether illicit or prescription, floods the brain and body with pleasurable feelings. This torrent completely overshadows any action or process that the body naturally rewards with pleasure, making them almost obsolete. Essentially, opioid use becomes infinitely more pleasurable than the weakening rewards produced by eating, drinking, exercising, and sexual activity. As a result, the reward system of the brain is rewired to yearn for this artificial input in order to get those same feelings of euphoria.
The problem lies in the fact that the body and brain learn how to tolerate opioids – or any substance for that matter – leading to diminishing returns. The same old dose will not produce comparable effects. So, in pursuit of achieving the same pleasurable high, a person will be forced to take the following actions:
- Increase the dosage of the drug
- Consume the drug more frequently
- Seek a more direct method of ingestion by needle or snorting
- Seek out stronger drugs, better purity, or more highly concentrated forms of the substance
Over time as tolerance continues to build, this habit will develop into an addiction that can be incredibly hard and uncomfortable to kick. People who crave the high will not have an easy time ignoring such compulsions. So, in the pursuit of this high, they will recklessly seek to increase their drug consumption, continuously raising the bar until they find themselves on a precarious tightrope where even the slightest misstep could be lethal.
As a person becomes more tolerant of the presence of opioids in their system, their body will begin to depend increasingly more on the drug to function regularly. When opioids are absent from the system, the body no longer knows how to react, and as a result, it begins to malfunction. This malfunction is what is referred to medically as withdrawals.
Opioid withdrawal symptoms may range from mild to severe based on the severity of the opioid abuse. As mentioned earlier, humans can also be affected by a variety of factors that alter both levels of dependence and withdrawal symptoms. Such factors include:
- A family history of addiction
- Administration of opioid
- Dosage of opioid
- Duration of opioid abuse
- Form of opioid
- Presence of co-occurring disease
- Previous trauma
- Relative health
That said, unpleasant symptoms of withdrawal can set in within 6 hours of the last dose and may last as long as a week if the opioid user cannot get their hands on more. Because this detoxification process can be dangerous, it is recommended that an intentional detox take place under the care of a medical supervisor at an inpatient rehab clinic.
Symptoms of withdrawal include;
- Aches and pains
- Extreme cravings
- Extreme sweating
- Heavily beating heart
- High temperatures
- Intense cravings
- Panic attacks
- Runny nose
Deterioration of the Brain
As time passes, opioids can profoundly alter the brain’s chemistry in two ways:
- Changes how the brain reacts to pain stimulus
- Muddles the communication between the brain and the reward center
This distortion of pain management and reward signals deeply hampers the brain’s ability to function normally. As the brain’s natural pain-fighting neurotransmitters learn to play second fiddle to synthetic opioids, they gradually become impotent through disuse, resulting in the brain becoming incapable of naturally regulating pain and managing discomfort.
Because of this decline in pain regulation, an injury that may have once been trifling can cause significant pain. In response, a person will take more opioids to ease the pain, and so the cycle continues. Similarly, moods and emotional reactions that were naturally regulated by dopamine release will also be hampered.
As opioids further take precedent, continuously shifting to the center spot of a person’s life, their old hobbies, activities, or passions will fall by the wayside since they do not produce the same high as opioids. Tragically, many opioid addicts continue using even as their social and work life suffers, and their important relationships crumble around them. Chasing that high becomes an obsession and the most vital biological drive they have.
Regular and long-term opioid abuse can lead to severe and lasting damage to the brain. As mentioned above, these drugs rewire the brain and cause it to deteriorate and dysfunction. Heroin and fentanyl have especially direct links to permanent brain damage and this decrease in mental functioning cannot simply be fixed by stopping if a person has been abusing opioids for years.
While medication-assisted treatment, counseling, aftercare, and sobriety may help alleviate some of these issues, in many cases, the damage is already done. Knowing this, if you deal with opioid abuse, it is essential that you cut it off as soon as possible in the name of your brain’s long-term health.
Longstanding opioid abuse will not only impact the brain but also alter how the rest of the body functions. Since opioid receptors are also in the gastrointestinal muscles, regular opioid use can cause opioid-induced constipation (OIC). Opioids retard or altogether stop the muscles around the intestines, rendering them incapable of contracting or expanding.
On top of muscle debilitation, opioids cause the intestines to absorb more water than necessary, creating constipation by hardening the stool, which makes it extremely difficult and painful to defecate. For serious abusers, this stomach muscle paralysis can be so intense that users no longer feel the drive to pass a bowel movement. If allowed to continue without intervention the potential for health hazards occurring is incredibly high, possibly leading to:
- Anal fissures
- Fecal impaction
- Rectal Prolapse
Respiratory Depression and Failure
While brain damage and bowel deterioration can be fatal, the most dangerous effect of long-term opioid abuse is the damage done to the respiratory system. This damage can lead to failure, which is the underlying cause of most overdoses and opioid-related deaths.
Opioids depress the CNS, causing the body’s natural breathing to shallow and slacken. As a result, oxygen deprivation occurs in the body’s vital organs, often leading to organ failure and shutdown. In the cases of overdoses, this depressive effect on the lungs is so strong that an opioid user’s body forgets to breathe. This lack of oxygen leads to pulmonary edema, where liquid leaks into the lungs and a person eventually asphyxiates.
Lowered Sex Drive
Sexual dysfunction is a common side-effect of regular opioid abuse. This results in a lowered libido and erectile dysfunction in men. It is posited that opioids countermand the release of the sex hormones estrogen and testosterone. Long-term use can lead to both impotence in men and infertility in women.
While opioids can be quite beneficial for those in serious pain, their potency necessitates that they only be used when absolutely required. The long-term effects of opioids on the body are too severe to ignore. For this reason, if you struggle with opioid abuse disorder, it is vital that you seek medical assistance and treatment immediately. Although the road to recovery can be long and treacherous, the penalty for inaction exponentially increases if the opioid abuse is allowed to continue. If you or someone you know is struggling with an opioid addiction, please call our Georgia drug rehab center today.
- NCBI, “A Review of Potential Adverse Effects of Long-Term Opioid Therapy: A Practitioner’s Guide.” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3466038/
- National Institute on Drug Abuse, “Opioids.” – https://www.drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse/opioids
- National Institute on Drug Abuse, “Opioid Overdose Crisis.” https://www.drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse/opioids/opioid-overdose-crisis