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How the Brain Creates a Dependence On Opioids

Opioids have been around for a very long time, and are used as painkillers to help patients cope with pain post-surgery. They have both helped and harmed people, alleviating chronic pain for people who have undergone invasive surgeries, but also being the source of dangerous addictions for those who have developed dependencies on the painkillers.

Derived from the poppy plant, it’s known for being able to induce sleep. And the use of opioids for medical reasons is widespread, which has contributed to the growth of opioid related addictions. The reason lies in the powerful effect opioids have on the brain.

Prescription Of Opioids

One of the biggest misconceptions about opioids that may lead to a dependency, is that since they are prescribed by doctors, they can’t be that harmful. Unfortunately, this isn’t true, and there has been a notable rise in overdose-related deaths due to abuse of opioids.

Popular actor Heath Ledger died from an overdose of mixed drugs, including painkillers. Popular opioids include Vicodin and OxyContin and they are reportedly overprescribed by doctors, probably due to patients wanting prescriptions for painkillers even if they don’t need them.

Why Dependence On Opioids Is Common

Besides opioids being used legally for medical reasons, heroin is also a common illegal street drug derived from opioid poppies. People can easily get addicted to either the legal or illegal versions of opioids.

The reason they are so addictive to people is that they create an immense pleasurable sensation, and even light usage can result in changing a person’s body and brain so that they start intensely craving the drug. Both the brain and physical body will experience intense longings for the drug, and the pleasurable feelings that the drugs give them. Signs of opioid addiction include:

  • Withdrawal when not using
  • Stealing or lying to get more drugs
  • Intense cravings
  • Using opioids long-term
  • Obsessively thinking about the next fix

Since the feelings are short-lived, users will go to greater lengths to receive the drugs and also need more and more of the drugs to achieve the same feelings as the body becomes used to the drug. When a person is going through physical and emotional pain and is looking for a way out, opioids provide the fix and escape that one is looking to find.

Usage of opioids changes the brain, altering the way the brain produces dopamine and in the way it processes pain. Studies have shown that even light usage of opioids can change the brain. The good news is that if someone is able to quit long-term, the brain can return to its normal state.

How To Combat Opioid Addiction

The medical community is trying to set up a database in response to the growing deaths and overdoses on prescriptions painkillers. States are working on setting up drug databases so that doctors can check how many prescription drugs a patient has received in the past from other doctors.

When it has been implemented the database has proven effective with a lower amount of patients being able to dupe doctors into prescribing drugs to them that another doctor had already given them.

Opioid addiction is a complex issue, because traditionally people who get addicted to drugs are often thought to be living on the fringes of society. But while hardcore heroin users may be living on the fringes, there are also many people addicted to opioids through prescriptions, and that brings up more questions of accountability, due to the very addictive effects opioids have on the mind and body.

Implementation of a countrywide database will help reduce over-prescribing painkillers in the medical community, and more programs to help people who suffer from opioid dependency should be available.

How the Brain Creates a Dependence On Opioids

John Lloyd

John Lloyd is a certified addiction specialist, interventionist, and certified in anger management and domestic violence intervention. John has worked in the drug and alcohol treatment field for over eleven years and is in long term recovery himself, currently working as an interventionist at Serenity Malibu .

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APA Reference
Lloyd, J. (2018). How the Brain Creates a Dependence On Opioids. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 24 Aug 2014)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.