Facts about Opiates/Prescription Painkillers:

  • The Latin name for the poppy plant is Papaver somniferum, which translates as: “the poppy that makes you sleepy”. Opium is the active alkaloid in the poppy plant.poppy plant
  • Some medications, and street drugs, are made from the natural opium derivatives, such as morphine, codeine, and heroin.  While some of the prescription opiate medications commonly abused, such as oxycodone and hydrocodone, are mixtures of natural opium and synthetic (man made) opium derivatives.
  • Typical opiates medications generally produce a quick feeling of euphoria, that can last about 30 minutes or so, followed by a longer period that includes feeling relaxed, calm, and drowsy.  These feelings, created by the drug, are often what leads to addiction.
  • If someone uses opiates repeatedly, and in higher doses than prescribed, the brain will start to become dependent on them.  The person can quickly build up a tolerance which leads to requiring higher, and more frequent, doses of the drug to try and achieve those same feelings of well-being.  Eventually, the person will need the drug just to feel “normal”, because if the person stops the drug they will, fairly quickly, start to feel very uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms.
  • Opiates do have important, and legitimate, uses in medical treatment.  They have the ability to control pain and enable people to handle serious injuries.  They are used in some cough medications and even to control severe diarrhea, in some cases.  If taken as prescribed people have little chance of becoming addicted.  The key is to use the medication the way it is intended by your doctor, and NEVER use another persons medication, or purchase the drugs from someone on the street.

How do opiates affect the brain:

  • Their is a certain area inside the brain called the limbic system, which is responsible for controlling emotions, memory, and behaviors (among other functions).  limbic systemThe autonomic and endocrine systems are also affected by the limbic system.  Inside the limbic system, the brain stem, and spinal cord, there are specific nerve cells that recognize opiates (opiate receptors).  When these receptors are stimulated by opiates, this causes a response in certain areas of the brain and body (NIH, 2006).
  • Because opiates affect areas of the limbic system, which controls emotions, this is what causes feelings of relaxation and contentment when opiates are used.
  • Remember we said the brain stem also has opiate receptors.  The brain stem controls things your body does automatically, such as breathing and coughing.  This is why some prescription cough medications contain codeine.  Because they can act in areas of the brain stem to inhibit coughing.  However, because the brain stem also regulates breathing, too much of the medication (overdose) can slow breathing and result in a life threatening situation.
  • The spinal cord also has opiate receptors.  Because the spinal cord transmits pain signals, opiates that work on the receptors in the spinal cord help to block pain.
  • There are three main types of opiate receptors that have been recognized by scientists. They are called delta, mu, and kappa receptors.  Each one has a specialized function in the brain. The mu receptors, for example, are responsible for the pain relieving effects of opiates.
  • Using opiates for a long period of time will actually change the way the nerve cells in the brain work.  The nerve cells become so acquired to having the opiates (or dependent on them) that they begin to need the opiates to function normally.  If the opiates suddenly become unavailable to the dependent nerve cells, the nerve cells become overactive, and lose their ability to carry messages normally, leading to the symptoms in the brain and body known as withdrawal symptoms.
  • The withdrawal symptoms, from opiates, are often described as being similar to a terrible case of the flu.  Symptoms include: body aches, fever, sweating, chills, shaking, diarrhea, nausea, inability to sit still, and severe fatigue.  (These are just a few.)  People often have psychological symptoms as well such as depression, agitation, and anxiety.

New discoveries and treatments:

  • Scientists have discovered the ability to clone the genes that make the opiate receptors.  This enables scientists to make opiate receptors, to study how the opiates affect the nerve cells.  The hope is that these type of discoveries will lead to better treatments for opiate addiction, and other exciting discoveries.
  • There are drugs available that can help a person stop using opiates.  These drugs can help reduce the “cravings” the mind will have due to extended use, and lessen some of the withdrawal symptoms.  If you think you may be addicted to opiates, speak openly with your doctor, they may be able to prescribe medication to help, or direct you to a doctor that can.  Only certain doctors have the specific authorization needed to prescribe certain medications used to treat addictions.

Resources for help:

If you or a loved one is struggling with drug addiction.  Please reach out for help.



National Institute of Health [NIH). (2006). The brain’s response to opiates. Publication No.063856.