In recent years, mounting research has helped us to acquire a more enlightened understanding of addiction. The current consensus is that addiction is a chronic, progressive brain disease that’s characterized by altered structure and functioning of the brain, causing individuals to experience an almost obsessive fixation on self-destructive substances or behaviors.
Alcohol and drug addictions are the most common, but there are also a number of behavioral addictions that can be as debilitating. While alcoholism is one of the most difficult substance use disorders to overcome, opiates are extremely addictive and extremely difficult to treat as well. As such, the following will explain the long-term effects of habitual opiate use for individuals who have already recovered from opiate addiction as well as those who are still in active opiate addiction.
Long-Term Effects of Opiate Abuse for Addicts
Opiates are substances that are very similar in effect and in structure to morphine and which are derived from the opium obtained from the opium poppy. In function, opiates mimic natural chemicals in the body that are meant to calm individuals during times of great stress and also help individuals to overcome pain in instances of injury or painful illnesses. When an individual takes an opiate painkiller, the drug bonds with his or her brain’s opiate receptors, causing a sedative effect that relaxes the individual and alleviates physical pain.
When taken at doses higher than what’s therapeutically necessary, opiates produce a strong sense of euphoria, flooding the brain with feel-good neurochemicals such as dopamine and serotonin, which activate the reward and pleasure pathways in the brain. This makes the use of opiates pleasurable while also reinforced the behavior, causing the individual to associate the taking of high doses of opiates with strong feelings of physical pleasure.
Just like with any other substance, a person who continues to abuse opiates over a prolonged period time will develop a physical tolerance to painkillers. When a person takes a large dose of opiates, he or she will have more of the drug in his or her system than he or she has opiate receptors with which the drug can bond. However, with prolonged, habitual, and heavy use of opiates, the brain begins developing additional opiate receptors that can bind with more and more of the drug. As a result, the individual will eventually need to continue escalating dosage in order to achieve the desired effects.
Alternately, the individual will feel an intense deficiency during times when his or her system doesn’t contain a high level of opiates. Additionally, the brain tapers its natural production of neurochemicals and hormones and, instead, relies on one’s opiate use to provide them. Consequently, the individual will experience very uncomfortable or even painful withdrawal symptoms at times when the level of opiates in his or her system is low and leaves a lot of the brain’s opiate receptors vacant.
The implication for these changes is incredibly great. One result of these structural and functional changes in the brain is that the individual loses much of his or her ability to cope with pain naturally without the use of pain medication. In other words, long-term opiate use has been found to cause significantly decreased pain tolerance. Additionally, the individual begins to experience pain more intensely since he or she doesn’t consistently have high levels of opiate painkillers in his or her system.
If he or she were to take a pain medication for pain, it would feel as though it were ineffective, but that’s only because the drug didn’t provide enough opiates in the system to bond with all of the brain’s available receptors. There’s also a major implication for one’s mood as many of the neurochemicals that are affected by opiate use play a role in the regulation of mood and emotions. Unfortunately, one’s neurological functioning has no hope of returning to a healthy, natural level until the addict undergoes recovery and remains abstinent for a period of time.
Effects of Opiates That Linger Beyond Recovery
The brain chemistry and neurological functioning will begin to stabilize and return to a relatively normal state once the individual becomes and remains sober; however, there are a number of effects that will often remain with a recovering opiate addict for months or even years after having stopped using opiates. Referred to as post-acute withdrawal syndrome (PAWS) or protracted withdrawal, these symptoms are an unfortunate consequence of having been a habitual substance abuse for a prolonged period of time.
Long-term effects of opiate use can include:
- insomnia and severe difficulty sleeping
- nausea, diarrhea
- hot and/or cold flashes
- cramping or twitching of muscles
The lasting psychological effects of opiates during long-term use are arguably the most persistent. Without the daily, habitual abuse of opiate painkillers, individuals are confronted with their undiluted emotions, which can be overwhelming at first. In fact, it takes a period of time to adjust to this as the return of one’s emotional sensitivity often feels like an emotional flood. Additionally, many people who have overcome a long-term opiate addiction will be prone to experiencing depression, often requiring counseling in order to overcome these bouts of sadness.
On the other hand, many recovered opiate addicts have great success in twelve-step programs like Narcotics Anonymous, offering them an extensive support network of other recovering addicts who can give them advice on how to deal with their emotions, intense cravings that persist for years after becoming sober, and other lingering aspects of a previous opiate addiction.
The Palm Beach Institute is a One-Stop Resource for All Things Recovery
Opiates are some of the most highly addictive and dangerous chemical substances that exist. While there are a number of uses for which opiates are extremely beneficial, the misuse of opiates has cost countless individuals their lives. At the Palm Beach Institute, we believe that everyone deserves the chance to return to a life of health and happiness.
If you or someone you love would benefit from a free consultation or assessment, call us today at 855-960-5456 and speak with one of our intake coordinators. Whether it’s day or night, one phone call can start your journey back to independence and fulfillment.