Opioids are often prescribed to relieve pain, but unfortunately, opioids also have addictive properties, which makes it difficult for some people to stop using them. Eventually, a physical dependence on opioids may turn into a full-blown opioid addiction. We discuss the physical and psychological effects of opioids so that you can better understand how they may affect you with long-term overuse.


Close-up of opioid pills concept image for the effects of opioids on health


What Are Opioids?

Opioids are medications used to relieve severe pain or pain that doesn’t go away with other treatments. When you take an opioid, it binds to particular receptors in your nervous system, blocking the transmission of pain signals to the brain. Blocking pain signals reduces or eliminates pain caused by various illnesses and injuries. Over time, the body can become used to the opioids, which can lead to overuse and eventually addiction.

The Role of Opioids in Pain Management

Opioids have several applications in medicine. One of the most common is to relieve pain caused by surgical procedures or pain-related diseases. Medical professionals often prescribe morphine, fentanyl, or hydromorphone to control postsurgical pain, making the recovery process more manageable for patients. Prescription opioids are also used to treat pain caused by cancer or serious injuries.

The Physical Effects of Opioids

If you have an opioid use disorder, you may experience the following physical effects. Generally, the effects of opioids become more pronounced as you increase the dosage. You may also experience severe effects if you mix opioids with alcohol or illicit substances.

Gastrointestinal Impact

Chronic constipation is one of the most common side effects of opioids, as it occurs in up to 95% of users. Opioid medications slow down the movement of the intestines, making it more challenging to eliminate solid waste. Many people with opioid addiction also experience nausea, vomiting, and/or gastrointestinal bleeding.

Respiratory System Complications

When you take this type of medication, it binds with the opioid receptors in your brain and spinal cord. This relieves pain, but it also causes respiratory depression, a side effect that often causes slower breathing. During an opioid overdose, an individual may even stop breathing, increasing the risk of death.


Woman at home feeling chest and head pain, showing opioid medication side effects


Endocrine System Changes

Opioid physical effects aren’t limited to the digestive and respiratory systems. If you have an opioid use disorder or an opioid addiction, you may also develop problems with your endocrine system. For example, your body may not produce as much gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GNRH), resulting in fertility problems, reduced sex drive, and loss of muscle mass.

Neurological and Sensory Effects

If you use a prescription opioid for long periods of time, you may experience a side effect known as hyperalgesia. This is when your body develops increased sensitivity to pain, making prescription opioids less effective. Once hyperalgesia occurs, some opioid users start taking higher doses of their medications, increasing the risk for opioid dependence.

Opioid use disorder may also cause changes in the brain and nerves. For example, the use of opiates to treat chronic pain has been shown to cause changes in brain volume. After months of opioid abuse, the nerves may also become more active. If you stop taking commonly prescribed opioids, you may experience diarrhea, muscle cramps, and anxiety.

Impact on Recovery from Injury and Surgery

Although opioids are often used to treat postsurgical pain, they can make it more difficult for you to recover from a surgical procedure. This is because they affect multiple systems, increasing the time it takes for your body to start working at full capacity. Opioid use is also associated with muscle aches. If your muscles ache after surgery, you may have difficulty getting out of bed and moving around.

The Psychological Effects of Opioids

If you have a physical dependence on opioids, you may also experience a wide range of psychological effects. These effects can occur whether you’re using opioids for acute pain or chronic pain management. Be on the lookout for these opioid psychological effects while taking prescription painkillers.

Cognitive Impairment and Mental Functioning

Opioids affect your central nervous system, resulting in lethargy, drowsiness, and other side effects. When you feel tired and lethargic, engaging in cognitive processes is challenging. For example, you may have trouble remembering things, making decisions or solving problems. You may even have difficulty remembering if you already took a prescription drug, increasing the risk of opioid overdose.


Stressed man at home covering mouth, displaying anxiety as opioid addiction symptom


Emotional and Behavioral Changes

Long-term opioid treatment may also cause significant emotional and behavioral changes. Opioids affect the brain’s reward system, so you may have difficulty controlling your impulses. If you start to experience symptoms of opioid withdrawal, you may also develop psychological distress, resulting in high levels of anxiety or irritability. These psychological factors may worsen other mental health conditions.

Addiction and Dependency

If you’re physically dependent and/or psychologically dependent on opioids, you may eventually develop an opioid addiction. Someone who has an addiction is unable to stop using opioids even when they experience significant difficulties. For example, an individual may continue using this type of pain medicine even if they have chronic nausea or lose their job as a result of behavioral changes.

Opioids and the Risk of Long-Term Use

Many drug overdose deaths involve opioids in some way, which has led to the opioid epidemic in the United States. The side effects of opioid withdrawal may also be severe, resulting in an increased risk of long-term harm or even death. Here’s what you need to know about the consequences of long-term opioid use.

Tolerance, Addiction, and Withdrawal Symptoms

If you develop a tolerance to opioids, your body won’t react the same way to your usual dose. As a result, many people start taking their pain medications more often or in higher doses than prescribed. This increases the risk of opioid addiction and overdose.

If you suddenly stop taking opioids, you may experience debilitating side effects. For example, opioid withdrawal causes sweating, muscle pain, increased anxiety, nausea and diarrhea. These side effects make it difficult to quit using opioids without professional guidance.


Hand reaching out for help, concept image for opioid addiction treatment


Seek Opioid Addiction Treatment at Changing Tides

Opioid addiction has severe physical and psychological effects. If you’re ready to change your life for the better, Changing Tides can help. Call 252-715-3905 to learn more about our opioid rehab services in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Our experienced, compassionate staff members are ready to help you recover from your addiction.

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