What are opioids?

Opioids are substances that depress the central nervous system, reduce perception of pain, and in some people, create euphoric effects. The term includes those substances that are derived from opium or those that are produced synthetically.

Many prescribed painkillers are opioids, including methadone, buprenorphine, hydrocodone, and oxycodone. The brand names for some of the more commonly prescribed opioids are Vicodin, OxyContin, Percocet, Kadian, Avinza, and codeine.

Opioids are effective painkillers because they reduce the intensity of pain signals that reach the brain. When taken at low doses, opioids reduce pain without causing intoxication or impairment and may contribute to feelings of joy or contentment.

Heroin, an illegal opioid, is not prescribed to alleviate pain.

What are the side effects associated with opioids?

Although opioids are prescribed legally to reduce pain, they may cause the following side effects:

  • Drowsiness
  • Mood changes
  • Constipation, nausea
  • Smaller pupils
  • Reduced respiration
  • Itching

How are opioids addictive?

When taken for long periods of time, opioids change the way the brain functions. They increase the amount of dopamine--a naturally produced substance present in the brain that signals feelings of well-being. If taken for long periods of time, opiates reduce the brain's ability to produce dopamine on its own, creating the urge for increased dosages to maintain the feelings of contentment and well-being.

In addition, some individuals do not have as many receptors in the brain for dopamine, and they have a harder time finding pleasure in everyday events and activities. Using a substance that increases dopamine enables them to experience more feelings of pleasure.

Like other substance use disorders, opiate use may affect individuals regardless of age, race, income, or education level. However, there are factors which may put an individual at risk for opiate use. These include:

  • Biological disposition
  • Genetics
  • Psychological depression
  • Trauma victimization
  • Social influences, such as friends or family
  • Social stressors, such as poverty, abuse, and neglect

What is Addiction?

Addiction is characterized by repeated compulsive use of a substance, despite the consequences. Someone is said to have a substance use disorder when:

  • They have difficulty controlling how much or how long they use a substance (impaired control)
  • They continue to use even though it has negative consequences in their life (risky use).
  • Areas of functioning in life are adversely affected (social impairment)

Renowned Canadian physician, author, and lecturer Gabor Mate talks about the important connection between mind and health when talking about addiction.