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What Are The Long Term Effects of Opiate Addiction?

The term ‘opiates’ and ‘opioid’ are often used to mean the same thing; in reality, they have different meanings. An opioid is a substance that is derived from or simulates an opium. An opiate is the natural derivative from the opium poppy. Whichever form it comes in, they not only have serious side effects, but are also highly addictive.

Prescription or illegal opiates, when taken over a prolonged period of time, will predominantly lead to opiate addiction and abuse, and is a leading cause of a drug overdose in the United States.

A Brief Opiate History

Opiates have been cultivated from the opium poppy since 3,400 BC. Its use as a pain reliever, as well as to help sleep and bowel relief, was soon worldwide knowledge and became a popular drug.

In 1806, Friedrich Wilhelm Adam Sertürner isolated an opium substance which he called ‘morphine’ after Morpheus, the god of dreams. Doctors started using the substance to treat pain, anxiety, consumption, respiratory issues and other problems. During the Civil War, morphine was regularly prescribed; many soldiers became dependent on the drug and post-war morphine addiction was labeled ‘soldier’s disease’. When the hypodermic needle was invented in 1853, morphine was used in minor surgical procedures which led to Bayer, the German medical company, developing Heroin as a synthesized derivative of morphine.

Throughout the 20th century, Congress and the FDA (US Food and Drug Administration) better understood the side effects of the drug when taken long term and abused that they brought in legislation to control the use of opiates. The Opium Exclusion Act in 1909 is considered by many people to be the start of the war on drugs in the US. The Harrison Narcotics Tax followed in 1914; as well as taxing opiates, physicians and pharmacists were required to be registered in order to be able to distribute the drug.

In 1970, the Controlled Substances Act was passed with the task of consolidating all the regulated prescription opiates/opioids under existing federal law into separate ‘schedules’, based on the drug’s medicinal value, potential for abuse or addiction, and harmful side effects. Later, in 1973, President Nixon officially declared the ‘War on Drugs’.,/p>

Today, the 21st century, drug trafficking of cheap, pure opiates is a strong as ever and the War on Drugs in the US, as well as worldwide, is still very active. Even the use of medicinal opioids continues to be heavily monitored and controlled. In March 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued new guidelines when it comes to prescribing opioids for chronic pain.

Why Are Opiates Addictive?

When an opiate is taken, it enters the bloodstream and creates artificial endorphins and dopamine – the neurotransmitters that signal reward, satisfaction and pleasure in our brains. The result is a rush of euphoria and happiness to such an extent that the person using the drug wants to take it again. Because of the intense high feeling that is felt when taking opiates, the drugs are very addictive and symptoms can sometimes be measured in less than 3 days.

After the long term use of the drug – the period of time depends upon the person taking the drug – the brain no longer creates its own endorphins and dopamine so that the drug user doesn’t experience these pleasure feelings naturally, only when they use the opiate; hence the craving for, or addiction to, the opiate and the resulting ‘high’. Couple these ‘on demand’ euphoric experiences with the reduction in any pain, and you have the main reason why opiates are so addictive.

But the full-blown addiction doesn’t occur at first; there are a number of steps towards opiate addiction. Step 1 is tolerance; the drug user will take larger doses of the opiate in order to experience the same euphoria. Step 2 is physical dependence; the user’s body will exhibit withdrawal symptoms when the drug isn’t in the body’s system, until the user takes the opiate again. Step 3 is psychological dependence, or the craving, for an opiate.

Many opiate users of course, do not intend to become addicted to the drug. They often start out by using the opiate for legitimate reasons, predominantly by prescription, such as chronic pain relief or after surgery. However, by the time the pain has subsided, the opiate has had its serious effect on the brain and the physical dependency stage has been reached. It’s a long, hard process to kick the use of the opiate.

The Long Term Effect of Opiate Use

Over recent years, more and more research has been conducted to gain a better understanding of opiate addiction. Continued opiate use creates an addiction that is considered a chronic, progressive brain disease characterized by an altered structure. This affects the way the brain functions and causes the user to become obsessive about the opiate, to the point of self-destructiveness and an often big change in behaviour.

With opiates being similar in their structure to morphine, which comes from the opium poppy, it copies the body’s natural chemicals that help to deal with pain and stress situations, such as endorphins and dopamine. An opiate drug will bond to the user’s opiate receptors in their brain and act like a sedative, reducing physical pain and helping the opiate user to relax.

Taken in higher than prescribed doses and the opiate creates a greater euphoric feeling. The opiate user’s brain experiences an excess of pleasure neurochemicals, like serotonin and dopamine, activating the brain’s pleasure and reward neurotransmitters. With prolonged use, the brain develops more opiate receptors that will bind with the drug and the opiate user finds himself or herself needing more and more of the drug in order to achieve the same desired effects. As the brain starts to depend on the opiate to create these feelings instead of its own natural method, the user will experience withdrawal symptoms which can often be painful and distressing.

Over a long period of time, the brain stops functioning normally and is not able to naturally create the right chemicals within the body to deal with pain and stress, that is, significantly reduced pain tolerance. The opiate user is no longer able to deal with pain without the opiate medication (or illegal drug). In fact, it is highly likely that any pain experience will be far more intense than the time before the opiate was introduced to help alleviate pain. Sustained opiate use will affect the user’s moods and can cause severe mood swings as the opiate will impact the mood and emotion regulating neurotransmitters in the brain.

Other long term effects of opiate addiction include:

  • Difficulty in sleeping and insomnia.
  • Nausea; diarrhea.
  • Hot and/or cold flushes.
  • Muscle twitches and cramp, sometimes severe.
  • High levels of anxiety and agitation.
  • Depression, often severe and can be long lasting, even after recovering from addiction.
  • Abdominal distention and bloating.
  • Constipation.
  • Developing a tolerance to opiate potency.
  • Liver damage (prevalent when combining opiates with acetaminophen).
  • Brain damage due to hypoxia, due to respiratory depression.

One of the longest lasting effects of opiate addiction is the psychological impact. If an opiate user doesn’t get their ‘fix’ for any length of time, they are left to deal with the raw, undiluted emotions which can, for many, be overwhelming and difficult to deal with. Adjusting back to their brain’s own natural way of handling pain, stress, feelings and emotions can be a long process and be hard to overcome the addiction. But it’s not impossible. Narcotics Anonlymous’s 12-step programs has been proven to be successful in helping addicts overcome their opiate addiction.

Addicts are known to inject opiates which can lead to heart problems and pulmonary embolisms when injected on a long-term basis. This can also lead to a number of other indirect infections through the use of non-sterile needles and infected injection sites. Chronic infections have been linked to viral hepatitis and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) or AIDS.

Effects of Opiates On the Body

Long-term opiate abuse can have serious effects on the user’s body.

  • Opiates injected can cause veins to collapse.
  • The heart lining can become infected due to contamination.
  • The heavy use of opiates can cause sedation.
  • The lungs can suffer respiratory depression which may lead to slower breathing.
  • The digestive system can slow and may result in constipation.
  • If injected opiates, sharing infected needles may cause hepatitis.
  • Chronic opiate abuse can increase sensitivity to pain.
  • The immune system may become vulnerable due to reduced immune response.

Using opiates over a long period of time can cause daytime drowsiness, which may affect daytime activities. There is also an increased risk of developing depression. Research has shown that people using opiates for 6 months or more had a 50% greater chance of having a depressive episode.

The American Academy of Pain Medicine carried out research in 2013 about patients taking morphine, a prescription opiate, for chronic pain. After 10 years taking the drug, the patients showed the following symptoms:

  • 50% of the patients had a hormonal imbalance.
  • Approximately 50% also had signs of inflammation in the tissues.
  • All patients suffered less pain and had an improved mental attitude.

Opiates, and particularly those that are as potent as heroin, activate the brain’s receptions to a much higher degree and greater than anything the body can produce naturally. The more opiates a person takes, the more tolerant the body becomes to the drug. As tolerance levels increase, so more opiates are needed to get that same high feeling; over time, opiate abusers become dependent on the drug. The white matter of the brain, which connects the different regions of the brain to each other and allow signals to be transmitted almost instantaneously, becomes affected as does the grey matter, which controls muscle movement, sight, hearing, emotions, speech, decision making and behavior.

Damage to the white and grey matter areas of the brain start within a short period of using opiates. Long-term, the brain struggles to handle the ongoing rise of opiate abuse and the production of dopamine suffers – the neurotransmitter that responds to pleasure and reward. Over time, the brain’s capability of producing its own dopamine is significantly reduced.

Taking that first step and making the decision to withdraw from opiate abuse and receive help from a treatment center is a big decision, but it is one that will change your life for the better.