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Effects of Opioid Abuse on the Brain and Body

Addiction Treatment
Jan Trobisch

Jan Trobisch

An estimated 50 million Americans visit their physician every year seeking relief from temporary or chronic pain conditions. Another 48 million Americans claim to have taken prescription medications for nonmedical reasons at least once in their lives. In fact, it is prescription painkiller overdoses that cause the highest percentage of fatalities in the U.S., with opioid painkillers accounting for nearly 40 percent of drug overdose deaths in recent years.

Opioid painkillers, such as OxyContin, Percocet, Dilaudid, Fentanyl, Demerol, Darvon, Norco and Vicodin, all affect the same area of the brain a drug like heroin targets. This area specifically includes the brain’s reward center composed of the nucleus accumbens, cerebral cortex, hippocampus and the amygdala.

Heroin and painkillers even produce similar physical and mental effects, including euphoria, drowsiness and analgesia. They are also equally just as addictive as a substance like heroin, with abusers rapidly developing a tolerance for these drugs as well as severe withdrawal symptoms when they cannot get hold of prescription-strength painkillers.

Effects of Prescription Painkiller Use

Self-medicating with prescription painkillers or opioids usually leads to an addiction. Many people trying to deal with a health problem alone do not possess the solid coping skills and strategies needed to successfully manage chronic pain disorders or undiagnosed mental illness, such as clinical depression, anxiety or panic disorder.

Taking prescription painkillers, morphine or heroin for mental or physical illness symptoms is often the first step toward an addiction that will eventually demand the professional help of substance abuse treatment specialists.

Short-Term Effects of Opiate Abuse

Intended short-term effects of using opiates include pain relief, sedation, reduced reaction times, drowsiness and euphoria. By allowing the release of massive amounts of dopamine in the brain, opiates also reinforce behaviors leading to cravings for these pleasurable, short-term effects. Addiction to opiates may occur in as little as three to four days in those with addictive personality traits or genetic propensities for addiction.

Long-Term Effects of Opiate Abuse

When addiction to painkillers or other opiates occurs, long-term effects primarily involve withdrawal symptoms upon cessation of opiate drugs. These include:

  • Nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain
  • Constipation or diarrhea
  • Liver damage — if opiate abuse is combined with acetaminophen abuse
  • Brain damage from severe respiratory depression — hypoxia
  • Collapsed veins and contraction of infectious diseases when opiates are injected
  • Coma and death from overdosing

Overcoming an Addiction to Opiates

An opiate addiction is difficult to beat, but it can be done given the right kinds of psychological tools, professional support and guidance we offer at Synergy Recovery Services. In addition to providing medication to suppress cravings and reduce the intensity of withdrawal symptoms, we also teach clients how to correct negative thought patterns, deal with life stressors that often trigger relapse and treat underlying mental or physical illnesses preventing opiate abusers from defeating their addiction.

Our counseling programs for opiate addictions include partial hospitalization (PHP), intensive outpatient program (IOP) and individual counseling. PHP is Synergy Recovery Services’ most aggressive counseling program, with clients spending at least six hours a day in counseling, five days a week. With IOP, clients spend nine hours of group counseling at our facility each week — three days, three hours a day. Individual counseling is part of IOP and PHP programs where clients see a counselor once or twice every month.

If you or someone you know is addicted to painkillers or other opiates, please call Synergy Recovery Services today at 661-878-9100 to receive immediate assistance.