Opioid Addiction and the Brain

Opioid Addiction and the Brain

Opioid Addiction and the Brain

Opioids are drugs such as morphine, OxyContin, percocet, Vicodin, and Demerol among others that are pain medication legally prescribed to treat moderate to severe pain. Cocaine, methamphetamines, ecstasy, LSD, GHB, Ketamine, heroin, club drugs, or steroids are also opioids but illegal. Opioid drugs work by inhibiting the intensity of pain-signal perception through attaching to opioid protein receptors in the brain, gastrointestinal tract, spinal cord and other organs in the body.

Despite sparse evidence for their effectiveness when used long-term, frequent use of opioids has physically changed the brain to the point where it needs more of them to function normally, and users often become physically dependent, which in some cases can lead to addiction. This is because, in addition to alleviating chronic pain, opioids also activate reward regions in the brain, causing the euphoria very similar to heroin that increases the risk of addiction and overdose even in those who follow their prescription to a tee.

Case and point: a drug such as OxyContin is commonly prescribed to treat moderate to severe pain, but according to the Controlled Substances Act, OxyContin is classified as a Schedule II drug because it produces extreme positive feelings of euphoria, sedation, relaxation, reduced anxiety and rewarding sensations in the user, which has a high potential for misuse or overdose when used recreationally. In fact, a significantly slowed respiratory rate can quickly turn life-threatening, especially in overdose circumstances.

While physical dependence is predictable in most cases, not everyone who takes opioids becomes addicted to the euphoria they produce, even those on high doses for long periods of time. In fact, some users develop a condition known as opioid –induced hyperalgesia (OIH) whereby patients become increasingly sensitive to pain as a result of treatment with opioids.

Any addiction forms as a result of repeated stimulation of the brain’s reward system. The unusual levels of opioid stimulation exceed what the brain is equipped to handle at any given time and as a result, alters the brain and produce persistent cravings for opioids.

The brain construes the abundance of euphoric-releasing opioids as a positive familiarity necessary for the body’s survival. And as would be expected in the path of addiction, the development of tolerance and physical dependence occurs, and as tolerance increases, the body’s ability to maintain this stability is outdone, and the body becomes increasingly reliant on the drugs.

The physiological adaptations to chronic exposure to a drug are what leads to dependence and are not really part of addiction. Addiction, on the other hand, involves various changes in the altered brain biology and is distinguished by a very obsessive drug seeking, the inability to control drug use, and a compulsive drug use that prompt the destructive behaviors of addiction.

Misuse of prescription opioids is a risk factor for transitioning to heroin use and other life-threatening drugs. Building a new life which is not connected to drug addiction is a challenging task only a good counselor or therapist can guide anyone through.

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