Opioid painkillers are not meant to be used for the long term, but they often are. Long-term use causes the brain to change how it functions, leading to a variety of serious health complications that require intensive treatment and care. Even using prescription opioids for as few as 30 days can reduce brain matter in areas that regulate cravings, emotion, and pain.
Here are the five long-term effects of opioid painkillers on the brain:
- Depression: A recent study found that people who use opioid painkillers for 180 days or longer are 53% more likely to experience depression than those who use them for less time. Overcoming depression usually requires medication and counseling over months or years. This is because depression has both a psychological impact that must be dealt with, as well as a physical source—altered brain chemistry and function—which must be healed. Addiction can cause depression, and depression can make you more vulnerable to addiction, with each problem compounding the other.
- Physical Dependency: Anyone taking prescription opioids will become tolerant to the medication’s effects, even when taking them as directed, if they take them for a long period of time. Tolerance will require the patient to take more of the drug, which increases the chance of physical dependency and health complications. Once you are physically dependent, your body and brain have adapted their functioning to rely on the presence of the drug in your system. As a result, you will experience withdrawal symptoms and drug cravings whenever you try to quit or cut down.
- Disrupted Neurotransmitters: Physical dependency on opioid painkillers causes your brain to reduce the amount of neurotransmitters it produces. This is your brain’s attempt to balance out the unnatural floods of neurotransmitters that create the euphoric feelings users feel when taking opioids. After your brain becomes reliant on opioids, stopping, cutting down, or even waiting too long between doses will cause you to feel exhausted, sad, unmotivated, irritable, and unable to enjoy life. An increased tolerance will cause you to feel this way, too, leading you to take larger doses just to avoid the miserable neurotransmitter low. Professional drug detox and addiction treatment is needed for the brain to resume normal neurotransmitter production.
- Impaired Cognition: Using prescription opioids for a long period of time has been proven to destroy brain cells responsible for cognition, memory, and learning, and to reduce blood flow to the brain in ways that cause short-term memory loss. A recent study found that long-term or heavy use of opioids can increase your chances of developing dementia as you age. The sooner you seek treatment, the better your chances will be of avoiding these consequences.
- Addiction: Even taking painkillers for a week will greatly increase your chances of developing an addiction, and addiction is a chronic disease that requires professional treatment. Addictions.com can connect you to the best addiction rehabilitation programs to help your brain and body start to heal as soon as possible.