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Your Brain on Opiates

Opiate addiction often occurs accidentally. Someone is taking a pain pill—innocently and legally prescribed by a family doctor—because of an injury or a medical condition, and suddenly the person finds himself unable to function if he doesn’t take a pain pill. Even when the injury is healed, he will find that he cannot sleep or he experiences unpleasant withdrawal symptoms, and it just seems easier to keep taking the medication. What are opiates, and how do they work?

How Do They Work?

Opiates have a way of finding natural receptors in the brain and binding with them. There are three kinds of receptors, and scientists have named them mu, delta, and kappa. Broadly speaking, mu receptors hook you up with those tempting feelings of pleasure that come with opiates. Delta receptors do the same, to a lesser extent, and enhance the medication’s antidepressant qualities. Kappa receptors are involved in dissociative effects of medications. All of these are functions of the body’s limbic system. And of course they decrease the body’s ability to feel pain. But opiates also affect the brainstem, which is responsible for your body’s involuntary or automatic responses such as breathing. It’s not too good, is it, if you take an opiate and then your body forgets to breathe.

Common Opiates: Prescription to Street Drugs

The most common opiate pain relievers, also called narcotic analgesics, include Tylenol 3, which is acetaminophen with codeine. There is Actiq, the brand-name for generic fentanyl. Vicodin and Lorcan contain hydrocodone. Oxycontin and Percocet or Percodan contain oxycodone. Ultram and Ryzolt are the brand names for tramadol.

Hydrocodone and oxycodone are very similar. Hydrocodone is a derivative of codeine and is slightly less potent than oxycodone. Oxycodone, like hydrocodone, is semi-synthetic but it comes from the opium in poppies. Morphine also comes from poppies, and codeine comes from morphine. Over the years, doctors and chemists have come up with a lot of ways to treat pain, resulting in all these analgesic variations, but all of them are seriously addictive.   

The fact that Vicodin and Percodan seem almost like household names make them ten times as dangerous for the person who thinks that if the doctor prescribes them, there can be no danger. There are also some pain medications that are less familiar to the average person—Dilaudid, which is the brand name for hydromorphone, Demerol (meperidine), Dolophine (methadone) and MS Contin (morphine)—which have doubtful use outside of a hospital setting.

What are opiates used for besides relieving pain? Codeine is a common ingredient in prescription cough medications. Some people also take opiate medication along with an antidepressant for a chronic illness called fibromyalgia, which is diagnosed when someone has a heightened response to pressure resulting in pain.

The big daddy of opiates is heroin. It has no medicinal value. It creates a feeling of total euphoria and it’s deadly. Because it’s cheap and readily available, many people who find their supply of prescription pain medication cut off will turn to heroin use.

Side Effects of Opiates

How good can opiates be for you when the side effects include constipation, fatigue, excessive sleepiness, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, dry mouth, itching, abdominal pain, difficulty urinating, diarrhea, tremors, irritability, muscle spasm, and hiccups. Those don’t include the more serious side effects such as stupor, coma, cardiac arrest, circulatory collapse, blood clots, and, as mentioned above, respiratory arrest. Oh, and you can expect to lose your sex drive.

Effective Treatment for Opiate Addiction

Treatment for opiate addiction requires a three-pronged approach: The person requires an extensive detox period. He benefits from aggressive addiction treatment therapies. Because his addiction began with an innocent prescription, he also requires some level of behavior modification to reduce the potential for relapse. Some drug counselors receive substantial training in order to provide effective opiate withdrawal treatment, and if you know someone who needs help, it’s important to get it for them now.

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