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How Do Opioids Affect the Brain?

In a world where recreational drug use is normalized and even encouraged, “popping a perc” may not seem like a big deal. Unfortunately, many people introduced to recreational opioids develop a chronic opioid abuse problem that affects all spheres of their lives.

But why do opioids have such an effect? Follow along as addiction specialists from Anchor Addiction and Wellness Center talk about opioid effects on the brain and what to do if you develop an opioid dependence problem.

Introduction to Opioids and Their Effects

Opioids are narcotic drugs derived from the extracts of opium poppy plants. These drugs can also be made in a lab to produce synthetic opioids with specific properties.

Opioids have long been used in the healthcare industry. However, access to and use of opioids is highly regulated since the drugs easily cause abuse and addiction.

Medical Uses for Opioids

Morphine is an opioid that was first used in the United States in the mid-1800s as pain relief medicine for wounded soldiers. Over the years, physicians have used natural and synthetic opioids as anesthesia during invasive medical procedures.

Doctors also prescribe opioids as painkillers for serious injuries resulting from illnesses, accidents and chronic pain such as migraines or backaches. In addition, opioids can reduce excessive coughing and diarrhea.

Commonly Abused Prescription and Illegal Opioids

Statistics from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) show that heroin is the most abused illegal opioid, with over 1 million annual users in the United States.

Half of the 2 million Americans with opioid use disorder are addicted to legal or prescription opioids such as codeine, morphine, methadone, and fentanyl.

All opioids have addictive properties, which makes even common opioid pain relievers such as oxycodone and hydrocodone capable of inducing addiction.

opioid effects on the brain can cause dementia and other illnesses

How Opioids Interact With the Brain

Your body has an extensive nervous system that detects environmental stimuli and transmits them to the brain through chemicals called neurotransmitters. When you experience pain, neurotransmitters pass the pain signals by attaching themselves to the ends of different nerve cells until the information reaches the brain. Your brain locates the site of the pain and tells your body how to react to it.

When you smoke, swallow or inject an opioid, its chemical compounds bind where neurotransmitters usually attach, preventing the transmission of pain signals from nerve to nerve. Opioid receptors also turn off the brain’s regulatory mechanism for the hormone dopamine, causing it to flood your system and induce a pleasant, happy feeling.

The flood of dopamine makes your brain’s reward system associate happiness and relaxation with opioids. Consequently, you’ll continue taking opioids to keep getting the same pleasant feeling you got the first time.

Short-Term and Long-Term Effects of Opioid Use

Opioids are fast-acting drugs with highly pleasurable short-term effects that make them popular among users. However, persistent and abusive use of opioids can result in addiction and cause irreversible physical and mental damage.

Short-Term Effects

The short-term opioid effects on the brain include:

  • Euphoria: Taking opioids causes an intense rush as dopamine quickly fills your system, resulting in a euphoric sensation that enhances a feeling of overall well-being while eliminating the pain, anxiety, and stress.
  • Nausea: Since opioids change your body’s communication system, your brain tags them as life-threatening and tells your body to get rid of them. Thus, you may feel nauseous and even vomit after taking heroin or prescription opioids.
  • Confusion: Opioids’ euphoric sensations often overwhelm the senses, impairing your ability to think and behave rationally.
  • Sleepiness: The relaxed feeling accompanying opioid use can cause drowsiness or sleepiness.

Long-Term Effects

Long-term opioid use can cause:

  • Cognitive impairments: Opioids affect the areas of your brain responsible for thinking and decision-making. Continued use leads to permanent changes in cognitive abilities.
  • Difficulty with emotions: Opioid drug addiction makes it difficult for your brain’s reward system to regulate your mood and emotions, putting you at risk of developing mental health conditions such as depression.
  • Memory problems: Opioid addiction impairs your brain’s ability to form new memories and increases the risk of dementia conditions such as Alzheimer’s.

Risks and Consequences of Opioid Abuse

Opioids are highly addictive drugs, capable of creating dependence within 3 days of use.

Continuous drug use creates opioid tolerance, a condition that requires you to increase the amount of opioids you take to get the desired euphoric feeling. Increased drug intake, even of prescribed opioids, raises the risk of overdose and death.

Addiction is a severe form of opioid use disorder (OUD) that makes it impossible to function without taking opioids. As a result, your impaired cognitive processes make it challenging to handle your personal and professional responsibilities. Moreover, you may lie and manipulate loved ones to get drugs or hide your condition, thus harming your relationships with family members and friends.

Prevalence of Opioid Addiction

The United States has been battling the opioid epidemic for the past 2 decades. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), physicians contribute a lot to the epidemic by overprescribing prescription opioids. Of people with OUD, 27% get the drugs through their own prescriptions, while 49% get prescription opioids from friends and family. Only 15% buy from dealers and strangers.

The opioid epidemic is responsible for 75% of annual deaths from a drug overdose. Synthetic opioids account for 56% of these deaths, while heroin makes up 19% of opioid overdose deaths.

Prevention Strategies and Treatment Options

Prevention Strategies

Reducing how much opioid medicine doctors prescribe is key to battling this epidemic. Prescription monitoring programs allow physicians to analyze patients’ histories before issuing opioid medicine. Physician education programs also teach doctors alternative pain relief therapies besides opioid treatment.

State and local governments continuously educate the public on opioids and fund research on non-medicated pain management to manage the prevalence of the opioid crisis.

Treatment Options

Opioid addiction treatment programs help people with OUD lose their drug dependence. Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) and psychotherapy are the main treatment options for OUD in the United States.

MAT programs provide addicts with CDC-approved opioid addiction medicine to manage opioid withdrawal symptoms and cravings.
Psychotherapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) are used alongside MAT to help addicts develop healthy coping mechanisms against opioid cravings.


Just like other forms of drug and alcohol dependence, opioid addiction is a serious health problem that affects the mind and body. People with OUD deserve compassionate support and assistance from an addiction specialist to overcome their drug dependence before it causes irreversible damage.

If you or a loved one is interested in overcoming opioid addiction, contact the team at Anchor Addiction and Wellness Center in Chillicothe, Ohio. Our experts can help you enroll in an outpatient opioid treatment program and start the process of combating opioid dependence.

Anchor Addiction and Wellness Center
3 Medical Dr
Chillicothe, OH 45601

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