How Do Opiates Work?

How Do Opiates Work?

How Do Opiates Work?

Opiates are drugs derived from opium that work by altering the chemical functioning of the brain. Several drugs fall under the category of opiates such as codeine, morphine, methadone and heroin. While opiates can be used as an effective treatment for pain, they can also lead to powerful physical and psychological addictions. If you or someone you love develops an addiction to an opiate drug, seeking professional addiction treatment can be the most effective way to find recovery.

How Opiates Aid in Pain Relief

Many patients are legally prescribed an opiate medication in order to treat pain. Pain can occur when nerves are activated by trauma and then carry the message of pain to the spinal cord and the brain. Opiates help to block the transmission of these pain messages within the spinal cord. The Scientist[1] explains, “Opioids bind to the receptors that modulate pain perception, hunger, thirst, mood, and other processes. Whether produced naturally in the brain or a poppy pod, or synthetically in the laboratory, opioids typically have an inhibitory effect on the firing of the nerve cells they interact with…Opioid receptors are dense in neurons involved in pain transmission, such as those in the dorsal horn of the spinal cord. By quelling the activity of these neurons, opioids block the sensation of pain.” Opiates are effective painkillers, but as they block pain, they create other effects in the mind and body.

How Opiates Create Feelings of Euphoria

Opiates can mimic the natural chemicals in the user’s brain that bind with receptors. These receptors have different functions such as inducing feelings of pleasure or pain. Opiates can affect several parts of the brain and nervous system including the limbic system (which controls emotions), the brain stem (which controls automatic physical functions) and the spinal cord (which transmits sensations). When an opiate is ingested, it activates the brain’s reward system by attaching to receptors and inducing feelings of pleasure. Abnormally high amounts of the chemical dopamine may be released, resulting in a brief and intense euphoria, followed by feelings of contentment and relaxation for the duration of the drug’s life in the body.

How Opiates Cause Addiction

When opiates alter the chemicals in the brain, the body adjusts its functioning to accommodate the presence of the drug. If the drug is taken in large quantities or for a long duration, the body can develop a physical dependency. A dependency means that the body expects the presence of the drug, and the addict will begin to experience painful withdrawal symptoms if the drug is not present. Dependence is not addiction, but it is a first step in addiction development and can be a sign that addiction is present. The National Institute on Drug Abuse[2] explains, “Physical dependence occurs because of normal adaptations to chronic exposure to a drug and is not the same as addiction. Addiction, which can include physical dependence, is distinguished by compulsive drug seeking and use despite sometimes devastating consequences.” Opiates cause a physical reaction in the body, and the brain and body are intimately connected, so they have a psychological effect as well. Since the drugs have the ability to alleviate anxiety and cause a sense of wellbeing, users will often use an opiate as a way to escape from problems or self-medicate a mental health issue. Addiction can develop when the user believes that the drug becomes a necessary part of his or her life. Opiate addiction can become a powerful compulsion and the addict may feel that he cannot control it or choose to stop using on his own. In order to recover from opiate addiction, it can be helpful for the addict to enroll in a comprehensive program of rehab treatment. Recovery from opiate addiction may not be easy but it is possible with the right help.

Finding Help for Opiate Addiction

If you or someone you love is struggling with opiate abuse, please call our toll-free helpline now. Our counselors are available 24 hours a day to answer your questions about how opiates work and help you connect with the right treatment professionals and plans for your situation.


[1]    http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/38989/title/Pain-and-Progress/. “Pain and Progress.” The Scientist. 1 Feb 2014. Web. 16 Apr 2016.

[2]    https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/prescription-drugs/opioids/how-do-opioids-affect-brain-body. “How Do Opioids Affect the Brain and Body?” National Institute on Drug Abuse. Nov 2014. Web. 16 Apr 2016.