As America suffers from the weight of a staggering drug problem, there’s been increasing attention given to the opioid epidemic. Opioids are a class of medicines that include prescription painkillers like Vicodin and OxyContin, and the term is also used for heroin as well.

While the use of prescription painkillers, in particular, is on the rise, there are still many common misunderstandings people have about these drugs. A big part of helping to address the issue can come down to exploring how opioid addiction affect the nervous system and the rest of the body. There’s a dangerous misconception that because a doctor prescribes most opioids, they are somehow safe, and that’s completely untrue. Dispelling that myth is a key component of addressing the opioid crisis happening right now.

Opioids get their name from the opium poppy plants, but many of today’s prescription painkillers are actually synthetic or semi-synthetic. Our body creates its own molecule-like substances that impact how the brain and nervous system work. When your body creates opioid-like molecules, they bind to certain receptors, sending messages that can help block pain, calm the body during stress, and shape how a person experiences reward and pleasure.

What Is the Nervous System?

The central nervous system (CNS) refers to a person’s brain and spinal cord. The CNS is responsible for most functions of the body, including communication across all systems. The central nervous system dictates what we think, what we feel and how we move. While the nervous system is a general term, for the purposes of discussing opiates and their effect on it, we’re referring to the central nervous system.

How Do Opiates Affect the Nervous System?

When an individual takes opiates, the nervous system is quickly affected. The first time, or maybe even the first few times using opioids, people often experience a tremendous euphoric rush, particularly with an opiate like heroin. Many people describe it like nothing they’ve ever experienced before. This is all because of how opiates affect the nervous system.

Synthetic opiates bind to opioid receptors on neurons that control dopamine release. This triggers an unnaturally high rush of dopamine, equivalent to about 10 times the amount that occurs naturally. This trains the body to take opioids over and over again. Over time, the body builds up a tolerance, which means that a person needs higher and higher doses of opioids to produce the same euphoric and pain-relieving effects.

Despite the desirable effects of these drugs, there are other less desirable side effects that indicate how opiates affect the nervous system. For example, the activation of some of the same pathways can lead to feelings of nausea and confusion as well as sedation.

It’s also important to note that opiates are central nervous system depressants. They impact the areas of the CNS that control necessary and vital functions, including breathing. When someone takes opiates it slows their respiration rate. If someone takes too much or combines opiates with other substances, like alcohol, their respiration can slow so much they go into a coma or stop breathing altogether. This is how opiates affect the nervous system in a way that also creates a high risk of overdose.

Also pertinent to how opiates affect the nervous system is the concept of addiction and dependence. Not all people who use opioids will become addicted, but the more someone uses them, the more their brain becomes wired to want to continue repeating that action.

When younger people begin experimenting with opiates, they’re at a greater risk of becoming addicted. This is because the reward pathways in their brain are still developing. If an adolescent alters the structure of their brain by taking opiates during this key stage of development, it can impact them for the rest of their life.

Opiates affect the nervous system in three key ways: they lower levels of consciousness, impact thought processes and cognition and cause dependence over time. Opiates influence nearly every aspect of the nervous system, which can potentially have detrimental effects on a person’s brain, body and life.

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Editor – Megan Hull
Megan Hull is a content specialist who edits, writes and ideates content to help people find recovery. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Sendra Yang, PharmD
Sendra is a pharmacist with a specialty in drug information. Her experience includes hospital pharmacy, drug/medical information, medical writing, formulary management practice, pharmaceutical industry, and teaching. Read more
Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.