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What Are The Effects of Opiates?


Originally synthesized from the sap of the opium poppy, opiates are the subject of an intense debate today because of their use and abuse by millions of people around the world. In recent years, these drugs have come under new scrutiny. From 1999 to 2010 opiate prescriptions quadrupled in the United States. That explosive growth in legal opiate use means that today the US accounts for 90% of the consumption of opiate-based medications.

With increased use comes increased abuse. As more and more people were prescribed opiates to treat chronic and acute pain, more of these drugs entered the black market. As people increased recreational opiate use, the number of deadly opiate overdoses also increased. In 2015 two-thirds of the over 52,000 deadly overdoses in the US were caused by opiates.

As more prescriptions for the synthetic opiates increased so too did the demand for the poster child opiate street drug: Heroin. People who find themselves hooked on prescription drugs often turn to heroin as a cheaper and more easily attained (it certainly doesn’t require a prescription) means to achieve the high they’ve become dependent on.

The social impact and grim statistics make a very clear case that opiates are indeed incredibly powerful drugs, but the debate over exactly how society at large should treat opiates and their users can often be fraught with multiple conflicting viewpoints.

Is drug addiction a moral failing or a public health issue? Is the treatment of pain a high enough priority or is it in fact too high? These are questions for another day, but to begin to approach a broader social understanding and to solve the very real problems of the so-called Opiate Epidemic it is useful to narrow our focus.

In this article, we will answer some questions we have concrete answers for: What are opiates? How do they work? And what do these drugs actually do to the human body? While the research on opiates in society is intense and ongoing we can come to grips with what a person who uses or abuses them can expect to experience.


What Are Opiates?

Opiates are any drug synthesized from particular chemicals present in the sap of opium poppies called alkaloids. An Alkaloid is a plant-based chemical that has a physiological effect on the human body. The most common form of opiate is morphine, one of the oldest pain-relieving medications still in use and still the most popular for situations like post surgery-recovery.

Perhaps the most well-known opiate is heroin. While it is known as a street drug, believe it or not, heroin began life as medicine. It was synthesized from morphine and originally intended to treat morphine addicts in much the same way that methadone is used to treat heroin addicts today. Needless to say, it didn’t quite work out the way its creators intended. Other examples of opiates include codeine and opium.


How We Perceive Pain

To understand how opiates affect first the brain, and then the body, we’ve got to roll up our sleeves and dig into some science.  

The brain and nervous system are made up of cells called neurons. These cells are connected throughout the body with small web-like structures called dendrites and axons. A simple way to think about it is dendrites deliver messages to the neuron and axons deliver messages to the dendrites. So when people talk about nerves, what they’re actually referring to is this interconnected system of axons, dendrites, and neurons.

This nervous system is how the brain communicates with different parts of the body and gathers information about what’s going on in and around it. Nerves communicate by sending chemical messengers to each other called neurotransmitters. The chemicals are released from the axons and picked up by molecules in the dendrites called receptors. There are thousands of receptors all over the body that send messages through the web of neurons to the brain in response to all kinds of stimuli. There are receptors that tell your brain if an object is hot or cold. There are mechanical receptors that create the sensation of touching a stucco wall. There are receptors that notice if your stomach is too full or too empty. There are receptors that signal your leg muscles are fatigued after a long hike. As you can deduce, if your brain notices anything it’s because a receptor brought it up.

Where receptors become important to the topic of opiates is when they detect something that could be causing you harm like your toe colliding with a broken sidewalk, or a glowing coal, or a pointed stick. Specialist receptors called nociceptors pick up on these harmful stimuli and send a warning to the brain. This special warning is what we all refer to as Pain. Nociceptors are the first stage in a multi-step process that delivers pain signals to the brain.

The initial message is transmitted from the nociceptor along a chain of similarly specialized neurons that ends in the thalamus, the part of the brain that controls pain perception and figures out which toe you stubbed and how hot that coal really was. The thalamus communicates with the hypothalamus and limbic system which help you to learn from the experience of the pain so that you won’t repeat dangerous behaviors while barefoot.

The pain impulse is powerful and can have lasting psychological effects. A person’s outlook and behavior can be radically altered by a painful experience. A child might remain afraid of the doctor’s office for years after a run in with a booster shot. If pain is such a powerful force at work in the body, then drugs that can alter or inhibit the perception of pain have the potential to have a huge impact and lasting effects on physical and mental health. Enter the opiates.

Opiates affect the transmission of pain signals at multiple points throughout the nervous system. They interact with another type of receptor, opiate receptors, in the brain, the brainstem, and in the spinal cord, preventing them from relaying pain signals. In one of the most incredible coincidences in nature, the alkaloid compounds found in poppy plants share an exact shape with natural pain-controlling that already exist in our bodies called endorphins.

The name endorphin actually comes from two words endogenous, meaning inside the body, morphine. Opiates lock on to these opiate receptors causing the brain to release massive amounts of dopamine, and endorphin connected to the reward center of the brain. The immediate result of this release is a euphoric feeling, the high that addicts become dependent on. The secondary result is that pain signals are interrupted. As stated before, opiates can achieve this effect by interacting with multiple points in the nervous system. That is why they are so powerful. They are perfectly shaped and can hit your brain from multiple angles.


Physical Effects of Opiates

The physical effects of opiates can be far reaching depending on how and for how long they are used. When used as directed by a doctor, the prescribed opiates can be an effective medication that leaves a very little lasting footprint in the body. Patients will often feel a mild euphoria form an appropriate dose, though this might actually be relief from the dulling of pain.

Since the euphoria of the release of dopamine caused by the opiate receptors in the brain is cited as the leading cause of opiate drug addiction, many forms of prescription opiates are administered in time-release doses. Common side effects of appropriate opiate use are drowsiness, mild nausea, and constipation.

Where the physical effects of opiates get a lot scarier is when they are misused. Recreational users consume opiates with the express intention of feeling the euphoric rush of dopamine, getting “high”. To achieve this, they will crush pills and snort or smoke them, liquify their opiate of choice and inject them intravenously; they may even freebase or apply them topically. Multiple health consequences arise from the long-term abuse of opiates, but negative consequences can happen immediately. Even a first time user can stop breathing after their opiate receptors are overloaded and their brain forgets to breathe.


Effects in the Brain

The most significant effect on the brain from opiate abuse is strong soporific episodes that can range from a simple daytime sleepiness to what addicts call “the knod,” where a user simply drifts in and out of consciousness. Long-term opiate abuse can increase the chance of powerful depression. Even regular patients using opiates for as long as six months have a 50 percent increase in major depression.


In the Respiratory System

As we hinted at earlier, opiates have an immediate effect on the parts of the brain that control breathing. The receptors in this region of the brain can be overloaded, and the reflexive activity of measuring carbon dioxide in the blood can be interrupted, causing a person to simply stop breathing and often proves fatal.


In the Digestive System

Long-term abuse of opiates compounds the problem of constipation that regular use sometimes creates. The muscles of the digestive system are slowed down which can cause blockages and perforations, which then can cause secondary infections or even septic shock.


In the Nervous System and Immune System

Surprisingly, the effect of opiate abuse on the nervous system can be the opposite of what regular use provides, causing a condition called hyperalgesia, which is an increased sensitivity to pain. Likewise, opiate abuse impairs the immune system since the body’s opiate receptors are involved in the immune response.


Effects When Injecting Opiates

A user’s problem can be compounded when injecting a drug like heroin. Injecting opiates can clog arteries in the heart or lungs, resulting in lasting damage if not death. Veins used over and over to feed the addiction will eventually collapse which can cause further clotting complications. Additionally, because users often share needles, incidences of Hepatitis C, HIV, and other blood-borne illness are much more prevalent in intravenous opiate users.


Addiction and Withdrawal

The physical side effects of opiate abuse are nothing to toy with, but perhaps the most damaging aspect of the improper treatment of these drugs is the risk of painkiller addiction and habituation and the withdrawal symptoms that can result. As many as 2.1 million Americans are suffering from some form of physical dependence on prescription opiates, and a further 467,000 are estimated to be addicted to heroin.

Those are sobering numbers. The danger of prescription drug abuse is that, quite unlike alcoholics or people dependent on cocaine, addicts often feel no pain. The high of opiates suppress the vital functions of the body and relieves even chronic pain, so where an alcoholic will feel sick and beat up by a night of heavy drinking almost every time, a heroin addict may just feel good. They’ll continue feeling good until their body shuts down completely unless their supply is interrupted. This is because of dependence and habituation, as well as overwhelming withdrawal symptoms from this substance.

Part of the brain’s self-defense mechanism is when it detects the rush of dopamine from the blocking of its opiate receptors, it will take note of that event and adjust how it interprets those signals going forward. What this means is addicts need larger and larger doses of drugs to achieve the same effect. The cycle of habituation will often result in a severe physical dependence.

The user’s body becomes barely able to function without the presence of the opiate. If an addict decides to stop using, the results can be nightmarish. Withdrawal symptoms range from sweating, shaking, and excessive yawning to compulsive vomiting, hallucination, debilitating cramps and loss of motor function.

It is a sad fact that the symptoms of withdrawal are often the very things opiates are used to treat in a “normal” setting, which is one reason relapses in opiate addicts are so high. Relapse rates in opiate addiction are as high as 90%.

Whether a patient began using because of a prescription or because of a run-in with an illicit source; whether the drug of choice is oxycontin or black tar heroin; the story of abuse of opiates often ends badly. These drugs have profound and immediate effects on the body. No matter the reason a person takes one, they should be treated with the utmost care and caution, and they should know that proper treatment is available. At Luminance Recovery we offer a holistic approach to opiate addiction treatment. We are here to help you on your journey to become addiction free. Call us today to learn about our rehab treatment programs.

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