Each year, approximately 16,000 people die from a prescription opiate overdose.
While the morbidity statistics are alarming, it is the long-term effects of opiates that really cause concern. They are linked to everything from hormonal problems to brain damage.
What is an Opiate?
Opiate refers to an opioid analgesic alkaloid derived from the opium poppy plant. The word is often used interchangeably with opioid, but they have different meanings. Simply put, opiates are naturally occurring while opioids are synthetic drugs derived from an opiate.
Opiates are usually prescription narcotic painkillers, as opposed to street drugs like black tar heroin, which is an opioid. The two classifications are very closely related, though and have many similar long-term side effects.
Both are often used recreationally, as well. The World Drug Report 2015 states up to 20 million people use an opiate as a party drug.
Drugs that fall under the opiate label include:
Semisynthetic opiates include:
Synthetic Opioids include:
Prescription opiates work to manage chronic pain, but it comes at a cost.
One of the biggest prices people pay for using a prescription opiate painkiller is the risk of dependence. Narcotic painkillers like oxycodone or morphine are extremely addicting. It is estimated that 23 percent of those who use an opiate drug long term will become addicted.
Drug abuse is defined as using a medication in a way other than intended. Opiates act by attaching to proteins called opioid receptors to reduce the perception of pain. Over time, a user may begin to abuse the drug as they develop a dependence to it. There may be no way to feel good or to relieve pain without using it.
Dependence leads to increased tolerance, as well. A person who uses an opiate regularly will need more and more of the drug to get the same benefit. Someone taking the drug to manage chronic pain, for example, will have to increase the dose to feel better. This individual will also experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop taking the drug.
Physical dependence and increased tolerance lead to the drug-seeking behavior of addiction. An addict will do anything to get the drug, legally or on the streets, despite the consequences or affect it has on his or her life. Getting that next dose becomes more important than keeping a job or maintaining relationships.
Long-term Effects of Opiate Abuse
Long-term use takes a physical toll on the body whether you use the drug recreationally or therapeutically to manage chronic pain.
Effects on the Brain
Studies show that abuse of an opiate will deteriorate the brain’s white matter. This affects:
- Behavior control
- Response to stress
Hormonal Suppression and Inflammation
There is also a connection between opioid therapy, hormonal disturbances and signs of inflammation. In a report presented at the American Academy of Pain Medicine, researchers showed that after using an opiate in high doses for more than 10 years, patients may develop hormonal suppression that can lead to an ongoing inflammatory process and intractable pain that no drugs can help.
As physical dependence becomes acute, some people will start injecting the drug to enhance its effect. This can lead to an infection that may damage organs. Injections also increase the risk of an infectious disease like HIV/Aids or hepatitis. As drug-resistant pathogens a prevalent concern, the consequences from infection become more daunting. Drug users are prime candidates for MRSA or Candida infections.
Chronic use puts a strain on the heart that may be irreversible. Prescription drugs are injected to reach the heart more quickly and can cause immediate damage to the organ. Inflammation of the heart due to long-term use increases the risk of heart attack and stroke.
Drug addiction can tear lives apart, so depression is an obvious side effect. This depression triggers a cycle that enhances the need to use. Opiates create a feeling of euphoria that alleviates the depression for a short time. When it returns, the need to self-medicate with an opiate is even greater.
Treatment for Opiate Addiction
If you currently take an opiate, you should get medical help before reducing your dose or quitting completely. Medical intervention can control the symptoms of withdrawal. If you suspect you have an addiction, treatment may be necessary to help get through the detox and avoid relapsing. Behavioral therapy will help you find ways to handle the cravings and compulsion to use.
Many facilities manage dual problems, including drug dependence and chronic pain. The staff will work with you to find ways to deal with your pain in a controlled manner and prevent further damage from long-term opiate use.