Humans have been using opioids for thousands of years. The oldest evidence of opium production discovered dates back to 3,400 BC in lower Mesopotamia. (1) A multitude of wars have been fought over access to opioids in all their forms. It’s also safe to assume that the phenomenon of opioid dependence is just as ancient. Overdose deaths were a bit less common with opium in its raw natural form, but this is not the way most modern people encounter opioids today. The majority of opioid use begins with prescription medications.
These synthetic and semi-synthetic compounds are a far cry from the opium of the ancient world. Their purity, increased bioavailability and route of administration make overdose and abuse much easier. These risks are exponentially greater when we look at street drugs like heroin (diacetylmorphine). Not only is the potency of street heroin unpredictable, but there has been an explosion in the amount of heroin adulterated with fentanyl or carfentanil in recent years. The move by organized crime to increase profits by folding fentanyl compounds into heroin has caused overdose death in the U.S. to skyrocket. Fentanyl in its purest form is so powerful that a fatal dose will fit on the head of a pin and it sometimes even proves resistant to the Narcan (naloxone) doses traditionally given to try and reverse a fatal overdose.
Dangers of Opioids
So, what is it exactly that makes opioids inherently dangerous? There is a combination of factors that in combination, make opioids one of, if not the most dangerous category of drugs of abuse in the world.
Analgesic Effects – Up until recently, opioids have been the only truly effective pharmaceutical treatment for moderate to severe pain. This has led many pain patients to inadvertently become dependent on opioids. Over time they build a tolerance requiring more of the drug to get the same effects or become psychologically dependent upon them too.
Euphoric Effects – Opioids act on the brain’s pleasure centers directly. The same part of the brain that reinforces positive behaviors with ‘reward chemicals’ is short-circuited by opioids in a sense. They cause these chemicals to be released without the usual stimuli. Eventually the drug can come to take precedence over even basic necessities like food, water, self-care.
Respiratory Depression – Opioids slow the body down. They slow breathing and this is one of the most dangerous qualities they have. Overdose deaths are most often caused by a lack of oxygen to the brain. People literally stop breathing. What’s worse is, it is impossible to predict the dose which will be fatal and the respiratory depression effect is compounded exponentially when other depressants like alcohol or benzodiazepines are used in conjunction with an opioid.
The very nature of opioids makes them dangerous. The potential for physical dependence and addiction spares no one. If you use an opioid regularly for any significant amount of time, you will become physically dependent upon it. Period. You will experience withdrawal symptoms and cravings when you stop unless you do so in a medical treatment environment where these can be alleviated. Not only is physical dependence a risk, but psychological dependence is incredibly common.
In addition to these risks there is the risk of overdose, which is far easier to encounter by accident than most people realize and prescription opiates do not protect you from that risk. The key points to remember here are that opioids are in fact inherently dangerous. This does not mean that they don’t have a legitimate medical use. What it does mean is that anyone who chooses to put an opioid in their body, whether prescribed or otherwise, owes it to themselves to understand the facts and the risk involved.
If you’d like to learn more about treatment options for opiate addiction, feel free to call us at Harmony Treatment and Wellness.