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From prescription painkillers to heroin, any opioid carries the risk of withdrawal, dependence, and addiction. Opioid addiction can affect people of any age and isn’t just limited to those who use street drugs like heroin. Those who misuse prescription painkillers or who even use painkillers as prescribed face the risk of becoming addicted to opioids. As many as two to six percent of people who use opioid medications long-term end up forming an addiction to these drugs.
Many symptoms of opioid addiction are commonly overlooked and can happen right under a person’s nose. Opioid withdrawal symptoms may also be easy to miss. With a large number of the population entering their senior years, overlooked symptoms of opiate addiction can take the guise of misdiagnosed health and medical conditions.
If you or a loved one is using any opioid, knowing what symptoms of opioid addiction look like can help you determine whether it’s time to seek treatment. When left untreated, opioid addiction can lead to other serious health problems, including hepatitis C, HIV, and overdose.
Symptoms of Opioid Addiction
Opioids are central nervous system depressants, meaning these drugs will slow your heart rate, breathing, and digestive processes. Constipation can result from long-term opioid use and abuse and lead to bowel irregularity. Many opioids also contain additives that can worsen constipation.
Changes in Brain Receptors
Opioids cause your brain to release a surge of dopamine — a brain chemical associated with feelings of euphoria and reward. With long-term opioid use, extra dopamine receptors are created to deal with the surplus that is always present in the brain. This change in brain receptors can make it difficult for you to experience pleasure and reward without the use of opioids.
Changes in Brain Chemistry
In addition to causing changes with brain receptors, opioids change your brain chemistry by flooding the brain with dopamine. Dopamine regulates cognition, motivation, movement, and emotion. With long-term opioid use, the brain stops making dopamine on its own and comes to rely on opioids to regulate these brain functions.
A Decrease in Pain Tolerance
Opioids are effective at treating pain when used on a short-term basis. But abusing opioids or using painkillers for longer than needed can reduce your pain tolerance and make you hypersensitive to pain.
Chronic opioid use and addiction can cause you to experience pain due to the way your body comes to rely on these drugs for pain relief. When you abruptly stop using opioids after becoming dependent, normal aches and pains you experience for any reason may seem excruciating. The safest way to stop using opioids without experiencing rebound pain is to gradually taper off opioids at an opioid detox center or addiction treatment center.
Long-term opioid use can interfere with your body’s hormonal balance and lead to loss of sexual libido. You may have difficulty creating a sexual response due to fluctuations in hormone levels.
One of the side effects of opioids is slowed breathing or respiratory depression. Chronic opioid abuse can make you breathe slowly all the time, which causes your brain to receive less oxygen and increases the risk of brain damage. More importantly, taking high doses of any opioid can cause breathing to stop altogether and trigger a fatal overdose.
Since opioids interfere with brain receptors and neurotransmitters that regulate mood, opioid addiction can cause dramatic mood swings and changes in mood. You or your loved one may feel happy one moment, and anxious or depressed the next.
Using Opioids for Pain Management
A simple prescription for pain medication can quickly turn into an opioid addiction when pain symptoms dictate how often a person takes a pill. While this may seem unlikely since people are commonly prescribed opioids to treat moderate to severe pain, opioids and pain symptoms have a way of working together to drive increased, more frequent doses.
Symptoms of opiate addiction often develop behind the scenes when everything seems to be going fine without a moment’s notice on the user’s part. Anytime a person feels the “need” to take more than what a prescription calls for, or takes pills more often than a script recommends, it’s possible that opioid addiction is knocking at the door. This “need” represents the body’s increasing tolerance level for opioids, which is a driving force behind opioid addiction.
Painkiller-Induced Cognitive Impairment: Delirium and Dementia
Older adults tend to experience a higher number of health problems that require pain treatment. As the body ages, it becomes less efficient at metabolizing drugs. Older adults who use opioids may be more susceptible to having higher levels of opioids in their systems compared to younger opioid users. Since opioids can impair cognitive function, many older adults who use opioids are misdiagnosed with delirium or dementia.
These effects are compounded even more in cases where people take multiple medications to treat different conditions. Under these circumstances, certain other medicines can slow down opioid metabolism and further increase opioid blood level concentrations.
Withdrawal Symptoms of Opioid Addiction
As a person’s tolerance level for opioids increases, so does the body’s need for the drug. When tolerance levels increase, a person must use higher amounts of the drug to experience the same desired effects. While pain symptoms may be screaming for higher amounts of opioids, increasing the dosage amounts may only make things worse.
When a person experiences withdrawal symptoms after stopping opioid use, it means their body has grown used to ongoing doses of opioids. Agitation, anxiety, muscle pain, and insomnia are just some opiate withdrawal symptoms that may occur when someone dependent on opioids stops using these drugs. Opioid withdrawal can be safely treated with an opioid detox, which may involve the use of medications that relieve opioid cravings and other withdrawal symptoms.