Humans have used the opium poppy plant both medicinally and recreationally for hundreds, or even thousands, of years. Before the intricate modern science studying the composition of opioids and how they work, little was known about why natural and synthetic opioids are so potent for pain relief.
In recent years, studying opioid medication and its effects on the body’s organs became more important in the wake of the opioid crisis. This knowledge helps to understand why opioid abuse is so prevalent and how to minimize the risks associated with prescribed opioids.
If you or a loved one are struggling with drug abuse, seeking professional help can be a life-saving measure. Book an appointment today with one of our licensed telemedicine doctors waiting for you to start your journey to recovery.
Opioid Effects: What Do Opioids Do?
Opioids are a class of drugs whose main active ingredient is naturally found in the opium plant. Opiates were historically made from the poppy flower sap, which dries into a white powder that can be consumed or injected to achieve its pain-killing effects.
Opioids, which are chemicals recently being synthesized, mimic the natural drug form at a cheaper cost with more potency.
These drugs, both natural and synthetic, induce sleep and relaxation and relieve pain with an efficiency that surpasses other pain medications.
The effects of opioids also include cough relief, as well as treating diarrhea for patients who have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or other gastrointestinal problems.
Taking a prescription opioid or an illegal drug of the same family can also cause severe depression in the respiratory system, slowing breathing down and making it less deep.
How Do Opioids Work?
The human body comes with natural opioid receptors in nerve cells that respond to intrinsic chemicals and are highly prone to being affected by extrinsic ones. These chemicals include both prescription opioids, like oxycodone and morphine, and other illicit drugs (called narcotics), like heroin.
Opioids bind to these receptors, found in the brain, spinal cord, gut, and some other places in the body readily. They then block pain signals before they reach the brain, which stops the feeling of discomfort associated with injury.
This mechanism of action doesn’t only have a pain-killing effect, but it also creates a feeling of euphoria many people experience when using these drugs.
Taking Opioids: When Do You Need Prescription Opioids?
Prescribed opioid medications are usually given to patients experiencing severe pain due to a major injury, like after being in a car accident or having surgery.
Non-opioid prescription pain relievers are usually not as potent as opioid drugs when it comes to dealing with acute pain. That’s why it’s the most common use for opioids.
Recently, though, attitudes regarding prescribing opioids to patients dealing with chronic pain have relaxed. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it’s now possible to be prescribed an opioid for an old injury or a chronic condition, like back pain.
This shift allowed more people to get better pain management, but on the flip side, substance use disorder cases and opioid overdoses are on the rise.
Other types of opioids, like codeine, loperamide, diphenoxylate, and difenoxin, are used to treat cough and diarrhea. These drugs have fewer side effects than the types used to treat pain but also still carry the risk for drug abuse and overdose.
Side Effects of Opioids
Taking opioids for pain management doesn’t come without side effects. Here are the most common adverse effects of opioid use:
When starting treatment using a prescription opioid, the body might take some time to adjust to the new chemicals flooding the brain. Feeling sedated, dizzy, or sleepy are all ways the brain copes with a new, or too-high, opioid dose.
If the patient is advised against driving or operating heavy machinery while on the prescription drug, this side effect is mostly harmless.
In normal circumstances, the body passes undigested fibrous material in food through the colon. This is done to absorb the last bit of water and vitamins from it before it leaves the body.
One of the effects of opioid use is that it significantly slows down the passage of stool through the colon. This is beneficial in the case of treating diarrhea, where the body needs to absorb more electrolytes so as not to cause dehydration.
That said when someone has a normal bowel movement and uses opioids, the fibrous material takes too long to pass through, allowing the body to absorb more water from the stool. This makes the stool less bulky, hard, and dry, which causes constipation alongside the slow motion of the bowels.
Tolerance describes the resistance of the body to the sedative effects of opioids after receiving treatment for a while. It happens because the nervous system gets accustomed to the amount of chemicals it receives with the prescribed dose, causing the sedation and pain relief to be dampened with frequent use.
That’s not to say only patients who abuse opioids regularly develop tolerance, as tolerance can happen to other patients due to the nature of their injury and their nervous system.
Developing tolerance could be the first step of opioid misuse, though, as the patient might self-medicate with a higher dose of opioids or mix other drugs with them to get the same effect.
In a clinical setting, the physician can either prescribe other medications alongside the opioid, or increase the opioid dose in case of severe pain.
Unlike tolerance, physical opioid dependence means needing the same dose of opioids to function normally. If the drug isn’t available, the body will face withdrawal symptoms.
This isn’t congruent to the mental side of addiction, though. Opioids have a marked effect on changing the body’s responses by affecting its chemistry. When the drugs are no longer present, the body has a hard time readjusting, which can have severe physical repercussions.
Opioid Use Disorder (Opioid Addiction)
Opioid use disorder is the culmination of physical and mental symptoms that prevent a patient from responsibly taking opioids.
This can happen by tampering with the dose, taking someone else’s opioids, or using illegal drugs, such as heroin and other street drugs, to achieve the state of euphoria associated with opioid use.
Although there’s a mental component to the disorder causing opioid addiction, physical dependence on the drugs has a huge role in how the issue is solved.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) recommends using medications like naltrexone, buprenorphine, and methadone to treat the physical aspects of OUD.
These medications reduce drug cravings and make withdrawal a lot more bearable, which can affect positive change in treating opioid addiction alongside behavioral therapies.
The most life-threatening side effect on this list is the opioid overdose. Due to the respiratory depression that can come about when a high opioid dose is administered, some people may stop breathing altogether when they’re on opioids.
The symptoms of an opioid overdose include pale skin, blue or purple fingernails and lips, limp extremities, and becoming unresponsive or unconscious.
Although not all opioid overdoses result in death, drug overdose deaths due to opioid abuse have skyrocketed in the past 30 years. This might be directly caused by the relaxing attitudes when it comes to opioid prescribing in recent years.
Opioid Withdrawal Symptoms
The effects of opioids on the body become increasingly apparent when the patient stops using them abruptly. Aside from the uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms they might experience, there are also some negative consequences and health risks they might encounter if they don’t seek professional help.
Here are the most common opioid withdrawal symptoms:
Anxiety & Irritability
Since opioids are sedatives, the loss of this effect on the nervous system can cause anxiety. This can lead them to become irritable, and exhibit heightened sensitivity to their surroundings.
This anxiety could also manifest in craving the opioid and in drug-seeking behavior.
Sweating, Eyes Watering, and Salivating
Opioids can have a drying effect on bodily fluids, causing decreased production of tears, saliva, and sweat. The body usually overcompensates by signaling extra secretion of these fluids to keep body tissues from drying out.
Once opioid use stops, the body takes a while to get back to the “normal” amount of fluid production. That’s why there’s an overlap between the lack of opioids in the system and increased sweat, saliva, and tears.
Nausea & Vomiting
Gastrointestinal problems are a common symptom when tapering off the opioid prescription dose. The patient might experience nausea and loss of appetite, and in some cases, it can lead to vomiting.
Since opioids cause constipation as a side effect, withdrawal from the drug could be accompanied by severe bouts of diarrhea and stomach cramping. If not treated properly, this can cause extreme dehydration, which can be life-threatening.
Body Temperature Fluctuations
Studies have shown that using opioids can cause a slight elevation in body temperature, similar to a low fever. During withdrawal, the body starts having trouble regulating its temperature, causing hot and cold flashes that can cause some discomfort.
A lower body temperature, also known as hypothermia, can also be experienced by the patient during withdrawal.
Shaking or muscle tremors are significant withdrawal symptoms that can cause the patient to be unable to function properly. The body’s muscles take some time to reset their responses to stimulation, which can cause uncontrollable contractions and shakiness that can sometimes be painful.
Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome
Pregnant mothers who abuse opioids can put their fetuses at risk of being born with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS). This syndrome happens in newborn babies as a result of opioid withdrawal. Its symptoms include:
- Continuous crying
- A high-pitched cry
- Tremors and muscle tension
- Excessive movements
- Skin irritation and injury due to uncontrollable movements
- Loose stool
- Poor sleep
- Sneezing and a stuffy nose.
Most mothers find maternal opioid-substitution programs helpful, which include the use of methadone to replace opioids in their system with a safer alternative. This decreases the risk of NAS and improves compliance with prenatal care for the mother and the fetus.
The effects of opioids on the body are many. Aside from providing pain relief, opioids can change the body’s chemistry and cause real physical symptoms that become a hurdle to cessation.
Quitting opioids is challenging, especially with the fear of withdrawal symptoms becoming too unbearable. That’s why seeking professional help is crucial for a successful rehabilitation journey.
If you suspect that you or a loved one are struggling with opioid use disorder, take our assessment today. Curednation.com provides the utmost care based on the experience of our licensed telemedicine doctors to get you started on your journey to wellness.