Let’s get down to the nitty gritty.
Given the opioid crisis that is happening in the United States and its impact on everyday civilians, it’s hard not to wonder how they work. Opioids manage to have such a strong effect on a person and their body. They essentially trick the body into not feeling pain—but how?
What They Are
Opioids are a type of drugs that are naturally found in the opioid poppy plant. Some of them are synthetic (manmade). A few well-known opioids include:
How Opioids Work in the Body
You have opioid receptors on the nerve cells of some of the most important parts of your body. This includes your brain, spinal cord, and digestive tract. When opioids enter your body, the receptors bond with them. This will then block pain signals, so even if your body hurts, you won’t feel it as much.
Opioids can also affect the reward center of the brain and provide a rush of dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that provides a sense of pleasure of euphoria. A dopamine spike brings on a rush of relief and provides good feelings, which can aid in recovery.
People might continue to use opioids longer than prescribed due to both the pain relief and the dopamine spike. Unfortunately, the longer you use them, the more likely you are to develop a tolerance, a dependence, or an addiction.
Risks and Getting Help
It’s likely that your doctor will prescribe opioids for short-term relief. If used sparingly and as directed, they’re generally safe. However, if you continue to take opioids, you may increase your risk of developing an opioid use disorder.
If you have questions about how to use your opioids correctly, or if you feel like you might be misusing them, talk to your doctor. Understanding your prescription is the first step in taking opioids safely.
Dr. Avery is the director of Addiction Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital.