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What Makes Opioids So Addictive?

distressed man looking at window

Whether obtained in an illegal form like heroin or as prescription pain medication, opioids have one thing in common: They are all highly addictive and can be fatal when misused. We examine how opioids affect the brain and body, the signs of addiction, and where to get help.

How Opioids Work

A prescription drug for patients experiencing severe pain, opioids like fentanyl, morphine, and oxycodone work by attaching to the opioid receptors on the surface of brain cells. When this occurs, pain signals from the brain to the body are blocked, and a biochemical process is triggered that causes the release of dopamine in large amounts.

Dopamine affects the reward centre of the brain, causing the same feelings of pleasure one might obtain from typical life activities like sex or eating. So, instead of feeling pain, a person who takes an opioid will feel happy and relaxed.

Opioids also mimic endorphins, which are the body’s natural pain-relieving chemicals, but send far stronger signals for blocking pain than endorphins can.

How and Why Opioids Are Addictive

There are many reasons why opioids become addictive.

Dopamine Release

The large release of dopamine and endorphins, and the resulting pleasure from taking opioids, causes the individual to want to experience these feelings again and again. As a result, they may take the drug even when they don’t need to treat pain.

Slowed Endorphin Production

Because opioids mimic endorphins, repeated use over time causes the body to slow its production of natural endorphins. Eventually, the dosage that was initially taken no longer has the same effect at blocking pain or causing pleasure.

Therefore, over time, an individual will have to take increasing amounts of the drug in order to achieve chronic pain relief. This is also known as building a tolerance.

Strong Withdrawal Symptoms

The intense pleasure and pain relief caused by opioid consumption also means that intense withdrawal symptoms can occur when the drug isn’t present in the body. This is because, taken over time, opioids cause higher production of noradrenaline.

Noradrenaline stimulates blood pressure, breathing, and other functions, but opioids prevent an individual from feeling these effects. Once opioids are absent from the system, the full effects of this higher noradrenaline production are felt and can include muscle cramps, anxiety, and jitters.

Conditioned Association

The pleasurable feeling created by opioids is recorded by the brain, which associates the experience with the places and circumstances under which the drug was taken. When an individual revisits these places and circumstances, the urge to use reveals itself.

As a result, the person becomes more strongly compelled, over time, to seek out the drug for the high instead of for pain relief or mild pleasure.

When an individual reaches this stage of dependence, they will typically begin to seek out more of the drug.

Why Opioid Misuse Is So Dangerous

Opioids already carry an inherent risk of addiction due to the aforementioned reasons. When a person becomes addicted to opioids and requires a higher dose of the drug, that risk is multiplied.

Even consuming the regular dose in a manner other than initially directed can be dangerous. Crushing a pill and then consuming it via “snorting” or injecting the drug delivers its full dose directly and rapidly, as opposed to when it is orally ingested.This can cause an opioid overdose.

When the body receives these direct and rapid doses, a person can experience drowsiness, lowered blood pressure, confusion, and slowed breathing. The latter can lead to hypoxia or a lack of oxygen to the brain. Hypoxia can cause brain damage and coma and can also be fatal.

Signs of Opioid Addiction

Some of the many signs of opioid addiction include:

  • Using the drug for longer than directed
  • Using a higher-than-planned dosage
  • Obtaining the drug from multiple sources
  • Repeated attempts to reduce dosage or quit without success
  • Investing a lot of time into obtaining and taking opioids and recovering from their use
  • Continued use despite negative health, relationship, and social consequences
  • Failure to meet family, work, and financial obligations
  • Ingesting opioids via injection, smoking, or snorting
  • Having cravings
  • Withdrawal from previously enjoyed activities and people

As you now know, it’s important to be aware of why opioids are addictive. If you’re currently taking opioid medications and have experienced one or more of the symptoms of addiction listed above, it’s crucial to seek treatment as soon as possible.

Opioid Treatment Exclusively for Military, Veterans and First responders

Receiving effective treatment for opioid addiction begins with choosing a facility offering therapy that treats the whole person.

Gateway Recovery Centre’s opioid addiction treatment program is for men only, and it combines nutritional therapy and proven therapies such as dialectical behavioral therapy with individual and group sessions. This helps our clients achieve long-term sobriety and optimal mental health.

Our clients benefit from receiving 24-hour treatment and care while staying in luxury living accommodations. The Edgewood health Network Centre is located on 14 wooded acres, offering a peaceful and tranquil environment in which to focus on recovery.

Our team of specialists pool their knowledge to create a treatment program that’s completely customized to meet your unique needs. If you are experiencing the signs of opioid addiction, call The Edgewood Health Network Centre today for more information about our facility and treatment programs: 1-416-644-6345.

An Important Update About the Omicron Variant

We are open and accepting patients. 

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have been dedicated to keeping our patients safe as they recover from addiction or mental health disorders.

As the situation continues to evolve, as do our protocols and practices at each EHN Canada facility. And recent news of the highly-infectious Omicron Variant is no different. Please know that we continue to implement the highest standards of infection prevention in accordance with our local health authority.

If you have any questions about your or a loved one’s care and the protocols we have in place for staff, patients, and visitors, please contact us at 416-644-6345 or email at [email protected] 

Thank you and stay safe,
The Healthcare Team at EHN Canada