The regular use of opioid painkillers causes alterations in the brain that lead to addiction, which is a dangerous problem on its own. However, prescription opioids can also cause damage to brain chemistry and structure that affect your thinking and emotions. This damage can be healed over time, but it takes a long time, and the changes create additional challenges to overcoming addiction. Addictions.com understands the multilayered effects of long-term painkiller addiction, and can help you find the best treatment possible for you or your loved one afflicted with prescription opioid addiction.
Using prescription opioids for as few as thirty days in a row has been shown to reduce the volume of brain matter that is responsible for the regulation of cravings, emotions, and pain. It also disrupts the brain’s neurotransmitter system by attaching to opioid receptors that control our experience of pain, pleasure, and reward. At first, prescription opioids block pain signals, but if used for more than a short span of time, they will actually increase your sensitivity to pain. When taken in larger doses than needed to treat pain, these medications can also create euphoria and a deep sense of relaxation that are not only psychologically addictive, because you want to repeat the experience, but physically addictive, because the brain seeks to balance out the unnatural flood of the neurotransmitter dopamine that created the euphoria by reducing the amount of dopamine produced and shutting off opiate receptors.
An impaired neurotransmitter system results in an individual who is unable to experience feelings of pleasure and pain in a “normal” way, and whose reward system has been trained to seek out opioids as a result. Depression naturally follows these changes in the brain, as the individual finds themselves unable to experience pleasure, and overly sensitive to pain sensations. They need to take larger and larger doses of opioids to ward off this suffering, putting themselves at risk of overdose without even experiencing the euphoric high they used to get from drug use. Recent research showed that people who use opioid painkillers for 180 days or longer (even taking them as prescribed) are 53% more likely to experience depression that people who use opiates for a shorter span of time.
The long term use of opioid painkillers also damages brain cells that are associated with memory, learning, and cognition, as well as reduces the flow of blood to the brain in ways that can trigger short term memory loss. A recent study found that long-term or heavy use of prescription opioids can increase your risk for cognitive decline and dementia. Some of these impairments related to thinking and memory can be remedied by drug detox and addiction treatment, and some treatment facilities provide specialized therapies designed to help patients improve damaged cognition while also overcoming opiate addiction. Talk therapy, medications, and occupational therapy can also be helpful in these cases, but the sooner the user gets professional treatment, the better able the brain and body will be to recover.