How Does Opioid Addiction Modify Our Brains to Crave More?

The illicit use of opioids can result in severe addiction issues. Opioids remain responsible for the leading cause of fatal overdoses in the US. In a recent survey, fentanyl, an opioid 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, was ranked as the top contributor to fatalities in the US. It should not be ignored that most of the deaths happen due to unintentional overdoses, meaning that many people are not aware that they are taking more than is deemed safe. 

What Are Opioids?

Doctors sometimes prescribe opioids, commonly referred to as narcotics, to manage severe or chronic pain. When used as per prescription by your doctor, opioid drugs can safely help reduce acute pain, such as the pain you feel after surgery. However, there are dangers when the drugs are administered inappropriately. However, even when directed by the doctor, opioids have high addiction potential. In the streets, opioids are available by the names of:

  • Fentanyl
  • Morphine
  • Heroine
  • Methadone

The consumption of opiates may result in unintentional overdoses because, most of the time, you are not aware of the amount that is being given to you when you buy it illegally. 

Side Effects of Opioids

Opioids are harmful in many ways. Some of the common side effects of administering opioids include:

  • Vomiting
  • Dizziness
  • Tolerance
  • Physical dependence
  • Constipation
  • Nausea
  • Respiratory issues
  • Fluctuation in heart rate


Brain Changes Due to Opioid Addiction

As a result of persistent alcohol or substance dependency, the brain might undergo alterations that lead to substance use disorders. Opioid addiction, the most extreme result of opioid misuse, is linked to alterations in how brain pathways responsible for pleasure, learning, distress, decision-making, and self-control, operate. 

The following are the alterations that opioid addiction entails:

  • Tolerance
  • Dependence
  • Addiction

Opioids, like most substances, affect the part of the brain that is responsible for reward. The use of opioids by people with opioid use disorder causes the basal ganglia, a part of the brain that communicates signals between nerve cells, to experience a joyful rush of the neurotransmitter dopamine. This region is in charge of regulating rewards and our capacity to learn in response to incentives. This initial rush and high is something that people go for. However, once someone gets hooked on opioids and develops an opioid addiction, the following are the outcomes that they will experience:


When an opioid is abused, your brain develops a tolerance towards it. Tolerance means that once your brain gets accustomed to a certain amount of a substance, it stops producing the same high unless more is consumed. This becomes the new normal for the circuits responsible for pleasure. After a person’s neurons grow used to the medicine, opioid addiction solidifies. The brain’s nerves start to adapt since they still need to convey signals across the body. 


When drug use disrupts the same circuits that allow us to enjoy common pleasures like intercourse, eating, and social contact, the ordinary pleasures may start to seem less pleasurable to the addict even when the substance is not being consumed. 


Because the condition of constantly consuming certain substances becomes the new normal for the brain, the user may start getting withdrawal effects when the substance is not taken. 

All the changes that happen to the brain after it gets hooked on opioids are long-lasting. In fact, the brain doesn’t instantly revert to normal after drug usage is stopped. Certain drugs, including opioids, can destroy neurons due to their toxic effects. This is also harmful because most of the killed cells might not be reborn. 

Additionally, while some alterations to the connections between neurons in the brain are transient, others last for months. According to other studies, it is also believed that the effects might last for years.

The differences in the physical level of the brain can be observed through a PET scan and when compared to the brain of a non-addict. 

What Happens When You Stop Taking Opiates?

The following are the ways in which the body reacts once someone ceases to take opioids.

  • The brain raises blood pressure
  •  The brain triggers and causes diarrhea instead of constipation 
  • The breath rate slows down. 
  • Certain parts of brain increase emotions of hopelessness 
  • Parts responsible for producing pleasure cause anxiety. 

What Makes It Difficult to Forsake Opioids?

The recovery from opioid addiction becomes difficult because of the withdrawal symptoms and recurrent desire in the brain. Because of the negativity that is produced as a result of putting a stop to opioids, the desire to consume the drug increases by many folds. For these reasons, it becomes highly difficult for individuals to forsake opioids.

For addicts, putting a complete stop to drugs might be difficult due to long-lasting brain alterations that are resultant from constant opioid abuse. Unfortunately, this is exactly why the chance of relapse is always a high risk after they cease to take drugs.

Even if addicts are able to avoid using drugs or alcohol for a time, eventually the persistent yearning brought on by the numerous cues in their life may weaken their willpower and cause them to relapse. 

How Do Opioids Work?

Your neurons produce signals that reduce your sense of pain and increase your emotions of pleasure when opioid drugs pass through your blood and bind to opioid receptors. 

Are Opioid Medications Dangerous?

At low dosages, opioids may make you feel drowsy, but at greater quantities, they might cause respiration and heart rate slowdown, which can be fatal. Additionally, the pleasure that an opioid produces might make you want to keep having similar emotions, which can culminate in addiction. Here’s how you can protect yourself from falling prey to the dangers of opioid medication:

It is essential that you follow the instructions of your doctor carefully. By doing that you can lower your chance of experiencing harmful side effects. Another crucial point is to make sure that your doctor is aware of all the other drugs and nutritional supplements you are taking.

Treatment Options for Opioid Addicts

Medication-Assisted (MAT) programmes deal with opioid addiction. By replacing opioids with other less potent drugs, opioid addiction may be treated. The following are the drugs that are commonly used for treatment:

  • Buprenorphine®
  • Naltrexone®
  • Suboxone®

One of the studies at NIDA showed that buprenorphine®/naloxone® combined with the extended release naltrexone®. Formulation naltrexone® has proved to be equally effective for those with OUD.

Starting therapy among persistent users proved more challenging with this drug since naltrexone® needs complete detoxification. However, once the process of detoxification was completed, both the medications proved equally effective. 

Statistics About MAT Programs

  • MAT reduces the use of opioids, overdose fatalities from opioids, crime, and the spread of infectious diseases.
  • Heroin overdose mortality was reduced by 37% when buprenorphine became accessible in Baltimore. 
  • When compared to patients getting care without medication, people receiving medication-assisted treatment (MAT) were more likely to continue therapy.
  • Medicines like Buprenorphine® and methadone are safe for pregnant women as well. In fact, they improve the outcomes for their babies. 
  • The above-mentioned medications reduce the chances of neonatal abstinence syndrome and the stay duration at hospital.

Responsibilities as a Patient

Though an OUD-suffering individual is to be empathized with and sympathized with, nothing can be achieved unless the patient remains committed to their goal of achieving sobriety. While undergoing a treatment from a drug rehab, the following are the responsibilities of a patient:

  • Only taking prescribed medicines
  • Consenting to routine drug testing
  • Encouraging the support of family and friends
  • Refraining from going to such places that may trigger relapse
  • Avoiding people who may urge you to give in to your desires

Role of Counseling

Along with MAT, medical counseling and other psychotherapies are essential. If someone also suffers from other mental health issues, dual diagnosis treatment is also carried out in order to make the treatment more holistic for the patient. Counseling is a crucial component of treatment and is typically necessary in conjunction with all drugs The following are the benefits of counseling:

  • Counseling should be conducted with a licensed clinician or healthcare provider. It is a very crucial part of the whole process.
  • Counseling helps patients address psychological, social, or other issues that may have contributed to their addiction.

It may be provided by the same physician who administers the medicine or by a different clinician outside the treatment environment.

Key Takeaway

Opioid addiction is a tough battle to reckon with. While most people may want to recover from OUD, it is understandable why they are unable to do so. The purpose of this article is to not only spread awareness but to also understand the struggle of a patient who is undergoing opioid addiction. In short, it is easier said than done. However, this does not mean that there is no escape from this curse. Remember, you can always recover. 

It is a necessity to recover because the risk of death due to overdose is always high. Therefore, nobody should shy away from seeking professional help. The journey may be difficult, but it is so worth it. 


Categories: Health

Nicolas Desjardins

Hello everyone, I am the main writer for SIND Canada. I've been writing articles for more than 12 years and I like sharing my knowledge. I'm currently writing for many websites and newspapers. I always keep myself very informed to give you the best information. All my years as a computer scientist made me become an incredible researcher. You can contact me on our forum or by email at [email protected].