An epidemic of opioid misuse has swept the country for over a decade now, impacting millions of people and their families. Between overprescribing opioid medication for patients and those who resort to purchasing illicit opiates on the street, over 2 million people in the US are dealing with opioid addiction. The struggles that people dealing with opioid addiction face are complex, and the disease of addiction can reach far into the lives of friends and loved ones as well. Because opioids can be dangerous and potent, the physical impact of opioid use alone can take a toll on the body in various ways. It’s important to learn just how hazardous these drugs can become when misused, especially opiates like heroin and prescription opioids.
The first main region of the nervous system affected by opioids immediately upon ingestion is consciousness. First-time users may feel a rush of joy or excitement, especially with street drugs like heroin. Synthetically made opiates attack the brain’s opioid receptors which are attached to the spine, also called the CNS, or central nervous system. Once the drugs are taken in, they affect the second region of the nervous system, cognition and thought process. Opioids take control over the natural “reward system” of the brain, flooding it with dopamine almost 1000 times more powerful than would occur if sober.
This leads to the third major region of the nervous system being affected. Neurons in the CNS pass signals off to each other and overload the reward circuit, causing sudden happiness or euphoric feelings when using. Opioids also break down vital functions of the nervous system like breathing and sending signals to the lungs. Many people who die from an opioid overdose end up experiencing slow respiration that ceases breathing entirely. Addiction can hardwire your brain and nervous system to function differently after extended use.
A common side effect of heavy opiate use is gastrointestinal distress. Over time, these drugs can slow down bowel function, leading to painful and persistent constipation. Along with this major side effect come intense nausea, vomiting, bloating and a chronically painful disorder called NBS, or narcotic bowel syndrome. NBS is a condition that can increase the misuse of opiates because those suffering from pain and discomfort will seek the pain-relieving effects of more drugs, causing the problem to get exponentially worse. The opioid receptors in the digestive system are connected to brain function, which is what helps the entire digestive tract work properly. After persistent opioid use, those receptors are dulled, and the brain is no longer actively sending signals to the muscles to perform daily maintenance. In most NBS cases, opioids can make digestive nerves more sensitive, causing even more pain than before. Long-lasting constipation is more than just an uncomfortable feeling, it’s also potentially lethal. If blockage or a tear of the small bowel occurs, it could lead to internal bleeding or fatal sepsis, a toxic bacterial infection, if not treated immediately.
Because of the numbing nature of opioids, lung function can severely decrease during misuse, leading to ceased respiration caused by the slowdown of the nervous system. However, there are other ways opioid misuse can also negatively affect the respiratory system, specifically the functions of the lungs. Opioids have been found to affect immune cell function, causing a release of histamine, a cell response to inflammation causing capillaries to dilate. This can cause something called a bronchospasm, which is a muscular reflex that narrows the bronchial pathways, causing choking similar to an asthma attack. Another issue that may arise with heavy opiate use is a non-cardiogenic pulmonary edema, a condition where the lungs become filled with excess fluid. This is often caused by the means of administration of the drugs, particularly smoking. Also, opioids can decrease the efficiency of the immune system, making users particularly susceptible to respiratory infections. To make matters worse, because of the sedative effects of opioids, those who misuse them are often unable to feel certain symptoms to know that they are dealing with respiratory issues or feeling pains.
The liver is the detox center of the body, which means everything that is ingested into the bloodstream goes through it, including opiates. When misusing opiate painkillers, they are often mixed with acetaminophen, like the over the counter painkiller Tylenol. This combination of painkillers can become particularly toxic to the liver, especially when mixed with alcohol. Drugs like Lortab, Vicodin, and Percocet all have high doses of acetaminophen which puts a lot of strain on the liver, sometimes causing it to store toxins. While some people who misuse these pills may go through a “washing” technique in attempts to get rid of a majority of the acetaminophen, many do not and end up experiencing early liver disease and even severe liver failure in extreme cases. According to the FDA, drugs containing acetaminophen are present in nearly half of all overdose cases in which liver failure was present, involving either death or need for a transplant.
Dangers of Injecting
While misusing opioids can cause much damage to the entire body, injecting these drugs can be the most harmful of all. Not only can it cause blood clots in the lungs, but it can also lead to lung disease and even tuberculosis. Sharing needles can quickly spread hepatitis C and the HIV virus, causing the quick degradation of the kidneys and liver. When frequently injecting into the same area, it can also cause a structural collapse of the vein, causing a large blood hemorrhage and risk of deadly infection. Injecting opiates can also cause endocarditis, which is an infection of the heart’s lining caused by toxins found in illicit street drugs and mixed prescription opioids. Injecting these chemicals into the bloodstream can cause major organ damage in the body due to clogged blood vessels.
There are many more ways in which opioid misuse can severely take a toll on the human body. Nearly every single cell is affected by these drugs and can quickly make someone’s health spiral out of control. The first step to helping someone get a handle on their opiate addiction and health is to speak with them about seeking the right kind of treatment that will help heal the body and mind.
PubMed – Adverse effects of opioids on the central nervous systems of palliative care patients.
ASAM – Opioid Addiction 2016 Facts & Figures
Springer Link – The Effects of Opioids on the Lung
Oxford Academic – Opioids and the control of respiration
IFFGD – Narcotic Bowel Syndrome
IWP – Opiate, Opioid, Narcotic – What’s the Difference?
LiverTox – Opioids, Opioid Antagonists
Photo is pixabay creative commons
Guest Author Bio
Holly is the Digital Content Coordinator for MedMark Treatment Centers. She works to help spread awareness and end the stigma of addiction.