Morphine is one of the oldest and most common opioid pain relievers in the United States, and it’s been used as a pain remedy for more than two centuries. Today, we are in the middle of an opioid epidemic that is claiming more and more lives every year.
Though opioids like morphine are strictly regulated and controlled substances, the illicit market is flooded with these potent psychoactive substances. Morphine isn’t as strong as other opioids, especially synthetic versions, but it’s still strong enough to be an effective pain remedy and potentially cause a euphoric high.
Morphine is a useful drug in the treatment of pain that comes from injuries, surgery, and chronic conditions. However, morphine, like other opioids, has a significant addiction liability. High doses, prolonged use, or recreational abuse can lead to chemical dependence and addiction. A small percentage of people can even develop dependence and even addiction with normal prescribed use, though a severe substance use disorder after prescribed use is rare.
Morphine addiction, once it’s developed, is difficult to overcome on your own. However, even though it’s a chronic disease, morphine addiction can be treated with the right help for your needs. If you or a loved one might be developing a substance abuse disorder involving morphine or another opioid, learn more about addiction and how it can be treated.
Morphine is a prescription opiate and a natural derivative of the opium poppy plant. The chemical is found in a number of plants and even animals. In nature, it has a wide variety of functions from defense mechanisms to natural painkillers. While drugs like cocaine and benzodiazepines indirectly affect the central nervous system, morphine affects the central nervous system directly by binding to and activating opioid receptors. Humans have receptors that are designed to bind to opioids because we have naturally occurring opioids called endorphins, which is a combination of the words endogenous and morphine.
Endorphins are designed to manage the pain response in the body from the site of pain, to the spine, and then to the brain. Opioid receptors are located all over the body in bone, soft tissue, and organs. Pain signals are sent through the nervous system to alert you to a problem. Nerve cells pass the signal through the body quickly, until endorphins are released to ease pain and help you relax and recover. They do this by binding to both the nerve cells that send and receive the pain signal and blocking the signal from continuing. You may feel this the most after engaging in tough exercise.
The phenomenon known as a runner’s high is actually the feeling of euphoric relaxation that comes from a release of endorphins that was triggered by pushing your body to its limits. However, some diseases, injuries, and disorders cause persistent pain.
For instance, surgery often involves making an incision that takes time to heal. In the meantime, you are left with a wound that constantly sends pain signals every time you move or aggravate it. While your endorphins might kick in, pain signals keep firing to let you know you are still not healed. Morphine is more powerful than your endorphins, and it can be used to treat persistent pain.
The problem of morphine addiction comes from the fact that the powerful euphoric feelings caused by morphine can also affect the reward center of your brain. Closely related to the limbic system, the reward center of your brain is designed to identify rewarding activities and encourage you to repeat them.
For instance, eating a hearty meal is good for you. You need to eat to survive. It’s the limbic system’s job to identify that and encourage you to do it again when you’re hungry. Unfortunately, the pleasurable feelings caused by morphine can trick the limbic system into believing that taking morphine or other opioids is an important life-sustaining activity, even after your pain has subsided.
It usually takes high doses or frequent use, for morphine to hijack the limbic system in this way. But once it does, it can become a severe substance use disorder that requires treatment to overcome
Morphine addiction can be difficult to spot in its early stages, but the longer it continues, the more difficult it will be to hide. If you are worried that your morphine use is turning into a substance use disorder, there are a few telltale signs that can precede a problem.
One of the first signs that a substance use issue is developing is a growing tolerance. As your body gets used to a drug, you will start to notice that it seems to have a weaker effect than it used to. Your nervous system may be counteracting the drug to balance your brain chemistry.
After a while, a growing tolerance can lead to physical dependence, which is when your body starts to rely on the drug to maintain normal functioning. If you cut back or quit, you will start to feel uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. Opioid withdrawal often presents as flu-like symptoms including body aches, nausea, vomiting, and sweating.
Addiction goes beyond a chemical imbalance in the brain. Instead, it affects the limbic system in a deeper way. Addiction is characterized by compulsive use of a drug despite the consequences. In some cases, a person may realize that an opioid use disorder is directly related to health problems, financial issues, or legal problems but are still unable or unwilling to quit.
If you are worried about a friend or family member that you believe might be struggling with morphine addiction, there are some signs and symptoms you might be able to notice.
If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction to morphine, it’s important to get help as soon as possible. The faster you get medical treatment, the more likely you are to avoid some of the most dangerous consequences of opioid use like intravenous infections, financial struggles, or criminal charges.
Morphine withdrawal symptoms can be uncomfortable, but they typically aren’t dangerous. However, in some cases, sweating, vomiting, and diarrhea can lead to dehydration, which can be dangerous. For that reason, the safest way to go throughaddiction withdrawal is with medical supervision.
The most pressing danger of a drug like morphine isn’t the withdrawal, but the active addiction itself. Morphine addiction, and addiction to most prescription drugs, often leads to illicit opioid use. Pain pill addiction is difficult to maintain. Pills can be expensive and difficult to acquire, which causes people to turn to drugs like heroin as an alternative. Heroin is cheap and the most easily obtained drug in the U.S. after marijuana.
Active opioid addiction can lead to fatal overdose, especially when other opioid substances are mixed in. Heroin can contain a synthetic drug called fentanyl that is incredibly powerful and difficult to detect. It can also be pressed into pills. People who use fentanyl-laced drugs may not realize it until it’s too late.
Morphine addiction is treated with a continuum of care starting with detox and progressing with your specific needs. Though opioid withdrawal is not typically medically dangerous, the safest way to go through it is under medical supervision to help you avoid any medical complications. Plus, medical detox is also ideal for treating co-occurring medical issues like infections, or other chronic diseases.
After detox, you may go through inpatient, intensive outpatient, and/or outpatient treatment. Through your treatment, you will go through a plan that you create with the help of your therapist that addressed your individual needs. Treatment can include family therapy, individual therapy, and group therapy and many other options.
The goal of addiction treatment will be to address your substance use disorder along with any other physical, emotional, social, financial, and legal problems you might have to facilitate long-lasting recovery.
If you or someone you know is struggling with a substance abuse disorder that involves morphine, there is help available. Addiction may be a chronic disease, but it’s one that’s treatable with quality help and evidence-based services.
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National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2007, January). 10: Addiction vs dependence. from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/teaching-packets/neurobiology-drug-addiction/section-iii-action-heroin-morphine/10-addiction-vs-dependence
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018, March 06). Opioid Overdose Crisis. from https://www.drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse/opioids/opioid-overdose-crisis
Rajmohan, V., & Mohandas, E. (2007). The Limbic System. from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2917081/