To clarify, “opiate” is a term for drugs naturally derived from the narcotic compounds found in the opium poppy plant, such as heroin and opium. The Sumerians first discovered the pain-relieving effects of the poppy back in 3400 B.C. As medicine continued to advance, medical experts identified the individual compounds of morphine (in the early 1800s), heroin (mid-1800s) and oxycodone (early 1900s).
The term “opioid” is used today to encompass all of the natural, synthetic and semi-synthetic formulations of opiates. These are also commonly referred to as painkillers or narcotics.
When ingested, opioids attach themselves to the dopamine neurotransmitters found in two sections of the brain:
- The area that helps govern speech and physical movement, and
- The area that activates the sensations of pleasure and reward.
When the dopamine neurotransmitters are stimulated, they produce feelings of enjoyment, causing your brain to want to replicate that feeling again and again. Taking an opioid drug does the same thing; they are excellent pain relievers and stress reducers, but are highly addictive if used incorrectly.
Your body produces dopamine naturally, and when these opioids are released, they attach to your neurotransmitters the same way endorphins do, blocking the receptors that signal stress and pain while calming your body with a rush of euphoric feelings. Opioid drugs are extremely addictive because of their potent effect on the brain. They too cause a release of endorphins and dopamine, but the effect is much more powerful, and something that your body can’t duplicate on its own.
However, just like any drug that mimics how our own chemical receptors work instinctively, consistent use of opioids causes the brain to slow or even stop the production of its natural dopamine and endorphins. Once this happens, the only way for an opioid addict to feel “good” again is to continue using the drug, often in increasing doses, so they can feed their craving and feel the pleasurable rush they’ve grown so accustomed to.
What we’re seeing in the current opioid epidemic is that painkiller addiction has impacted every state and touched all sectors of society – every race, socio-economic status, gender, etc.
We initially noticed that many opioid users started out using a prescription version before moving on to dangerous and unregulated heroin. Hence, many states are starting to restrict how many opioid pills a doctor can prescribe and whom they can prescribe them to.
However, we’re more recently finding out that many of these individuals misused a prescription opioid before developing an addiction. This means one of the following:
- The patient stopped taking the pills when the pain subsided, had some pills left over, and starting taking those pills later on without the doctor’s recommendation – either for recreation or to self-medicate.
- The patient took more of the opioids than prescribed, such as double dosing.
- A family member or friend either asked for or stole leftover prescription pills that were never intended for them, and took the pills recreationally.
If you’re granted a prescription for opioid drugs and your pain subsides before the end of the bottle, please take those pills to the nearest pharmacy to be disposed of properly. Do not let them fall into the wrong hands.