The term ‘opioid’ is used to describe substances that affect the central nervous system in the brain by binding to a group of receptors that exist there. The human brain naturally produces opioids called ‘endorphins’, which act as a natural pain-reliever
. Some associate the release of endorphins in the brain with what is known as a “runner’s high” – a decreased ability to feel pain, a euphoric feeling, and reduced anxiety after a long run or workout. Opioids are synthetically produced for both prescription and recreational purposes to replicate the feeling of endorphin release in the brain. There are three broad types of opioids, which are as follow:
- Natural opioids exist in the Asian opium poppy plant. The substance is extracted from the plant and used to produce illegal opioids or medication, such as codeine and morphine.
- Semi-synthetic opioids are naturally occurring opioids that have been chemically altered in a synthetic manner. These opioids are turned into what we know as hydrocodone, oxycodone, heroin, oxycontin, percocet, percodan, and vicodin. Some of these are produced for illegal use, while others are prescription medication.
- Fully synthetic opioids include meperidine, fentanyl, and hydromorphone. This type of opioids are completely produced in the lab using other chemicals.
Aside from feeling strong relief from their pain, opioid users can experience a feeling of euphoria and well-being. Individuals can also experience drowsiness, nausea, and vomiting; and among continuous users these drugs cause constipation.
Constipation is especially concerning due to its danger to individuals with heart problems and susceptibility to stroke, because in some instances when individuals are pushing down for a bowel movement, a heart attack or stroke can be triggered. Opioid addiction withdrawal symptoms include muscle and bone pain, involuntary leg movement, diarrhea, cold flashes, vomiting, insomnia, and restlessness. These symptoms can last somewhere between a week and a few months, depending on the individual.
Users who overdose on opioids can die due to the drugs’ ability to slow breathing down to dangerous levels, or even completely stop it. In 2014, opioid overdose accounted for 61% of all deaths from drug overdose. The adverse consequences of these drugs don’t stop there. In fact, opioids taken through injection, such as heroin, increase the risk of users transmitting and getting HIV-AIDS and hepatitis C. Also, research has revealed that prescription opioid abuse has led to an increased use of both heroin and fentanyl.
As stated by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), prescription opioid abuse led to the use of 80% of new heroin users. In 2012, doctors prescribed opioids to an estimated 259 million people in the United States, about 82% of the population at the time – a very concerning issue given the dangerous consequences of opioid abuse. As a result, doctors have become very careful about prescribing opioids on a regular basis. If your doctor prescribed you opioids for pain relief, the following tips may be helpful in preventing opioid abuse:
- Continue to inform your doctor about any and every medication you are taking.
- Follow your doctor’s directions for taking your medication.
- Go over the information your pharmacist provided you before taking your medication.
- Ask about your medication before taking it.
- Properly dispose of any leftover addictive medications after your purpose of use had ended.
It’s important to note that people with an addiction to prescription opioids most commonly obtain the drugs from friends and family.
To determine whether your substance use is problematic, please refer to our Substance Use Self-Assessment here.