Opiates include the strongest, most powerful painkillers on the market. They include such well-known drugs as morphine, oxycodone, and codeine. The street drug heroin also falls into this category. Even though doctors frequently prescribe opiates to help patients manage acute or long-term pain, there are many risks of opiate use that carry the potential for serious health impacts.

1. Addiction

Opiates work by latching onto opioid receptors located in your brain, spinal cord, and gastrointestinal system, and essentially change how your perceive pain. Because these powerful drugs work so closely with the inner workings of your body, you may quickly grow accustomed to operating while under their influence and need the pills to function properly. Once you stop taking opiates, you may feel symptoms of withdrawal, including anxiety, nausea, and insomnia.

This physical addiction marks just one way opiates latch onto your life. These drugs also work by triggering the reward pathways in your brain and producing euphoric feelings of pleasure and relaxation. Once off the drugs, people often find themselves yearning for those happy feelings and take the drugs not to cure pain, but to return to pill-induced peace. Physical and mental addiction can devastate a person’s life as he or she forsakes responsibilities and commitments in favor of getting high off opiates. Even medications offered legally by prescription can result in devastating addiction.

2. Health problems

Opiate use has been linked to a variety of health issues, including constipation, sleep disorders, and fractures. Long-term use of opiates interferes with the body’s system of hormones, researchers have found. A 2013 study completed by researchers in the UK found that patients taking opioids for chronic pain experienced decreased hormonal activity in their reproductive systems as well as low bone mass, which can lead to osteoporosis and fractures.  

3. Overdose and death

Opiate use and resulting deaths have continued to climb in recent decades. In 2010, about 38,000 people died from prescription painkiller overdose, up from 37,000 deaths in 2009, according to 2013 statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Opiates were linked to 75% of those deaths.

Opioid-related deaths occur most commonly among people who intentionally misuse prescription painkillers. However, sometimes a medical professional mistakenly prescribes an inappropriate amount of the drug or a patient misreads the medication’s instructions and accidentally overdoses, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). People who frequently take opiates develop a tolerance for them, meaning they need to take ever-increasing amounts of the drug to achieve the same effect. When people stop taking the drugs, their tolerance drops again. If a patient with a lowered tolerance takes an amount of the drug they were accustomed to during a period of high tolerance, serious physical harm can happen, including overdose.

Have you experienced ill effects from opiate use? What other risks of opiate use are you aware of? 

Image by Kurtis Garbutt via Flickr 

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