While substances that reduce or eliminate pain have medicinal value, they are often habit-forming and prone to abuse. This is the case for synthetic opioids, a category of drug which uses wholly or partially synthetic compounds to mimic the painkilling effects produced by organic derivatives of the opium poppy from Southeast Asia. Common synthetic opioids include Dilaudid, Vicodin, Demerol, fentanyl, and OxyContin.
For decades, doctors have routinely prescribed synthetic opioid pain medications for patients following surgery or injury. Only in recent years has it become evident how addictive and destructive these drugs are. Last year, 2020, marked an apex of drug overdose deaths, with 93,000 people succumbing. Of those deaths, 60% involved the synthetic opioid fentanyl.
How do synthetic opioids work?
Synthetic opioids latch onto opioid receptor sites in the brain, blocking pain signals. The drugs offer patients relief for moderate to severe pain, also producing a powerful effect of deep relaxation and mild euphoria.
The most commonly prescribed opioids are OxyContin and Vicodin. In recent years, fentanyl has been emerging as the synthetic opioid with the highest risk profile, as it is at least 50 times more potent than the organic opiate heroin. In addition to its rigorously controlled medical uses, fentanyl has also been increasingly used as a substitute component in illicit heroin and cocaine supplies, as well as in formulations of prescription pills, leading to a dramatic rise in overdose deaths.
Consequences of Synthetic Opioid Use
It remains unknown why one patient will become addicted to opioids and another will not. Science has not yet identified which differences in brain chemistry or genetics may predispose an individual to addiction.
As with all psychoactive substances, upon exposure to opioids the brain will modify neural pathways in the reward center. Over time, this results in intense cravings for the drug, perpetuating disordered substance use and allowing the grip of addiction to take hold.
Synthetic opioids cause the brain to release a flood of dopamine into the body—up to ten times the normal levels of dopamine naturally produced by the brain. The brain pathways become altered, and eventually, opioid use becomes fully responsible for producing the chemical.
With consistent use, the body increases tolerance to synthetic opioids. This causes one to need more and more of the drug just to feel somewhat normal. Once chemical dependence has taken root, attempts to stop using the opioid result in the onset of highly uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. This is what drives the addiction cycle.
Consequences of opioid use disorder include:
- Dependence and addiction
- Liver disease
- Heart problems
- Collapsed veins
- Impaired memory
- Gastrointestinal problems
- Weight loss
- Cognitive impairment
- Respiratory depression
Signs of Opioid Use Disorder
Increased tolerance to the effects of opioids is one of the earliest signs of trouble. However, in addition to the increasing levels of tolerance and subsequent increase in opioid dosing, there are other common signs of opioid dependency. These might include:
- Obsessing over acquiring the drug, having enough on hand, and looking forward to the next dose
- Doctor-shopping when primary doctor discontinues refills
- Buying opioids online or from strangers
- Withdrawing from friends and family
- Stealing pills from friends or family members
- Chronic constipation
- Increased anxiety
- Increased irritability
- Loss of interest in activities that are usually enjoyable
- Decreased appetite
- Difficulty sleeping
- Experience withdrawal symptoms when attempting to quit or cut back, or when the opioid wears off
It is possible to fully recover from an opioid use disorder. When an opioid use disorder begins to impact your daily life, relationships, career, and finances, consider beginning the recovery process with a medically monitored detox and comprehensive treatment program.
Ashley Addiction Treatment, formerly Father Martin’s Ashley, is a nationally recognized nonprofit leader in integrated, evidence-based treatment for substance use disorders and is accredited by The Joint Commission. We offer holistic care that encompasses the mind, body and spirit through inpatient and outpatient treatment, and provide drug detox, relapse prevention plans, family wellness programs and a variety of other services tailored to each patient’s unique needs. Our driving principle – “everything for recovery” – reinforces our mission to transform and save lives through the science of medicine, the art of therapy and the compassion of spirituality, and is complemented by our philosophy of healing with respect and dignity. For information about our comprehensive programs, please call (866) 313-6307.