Understanding Opioid Addiction

To better fight opioid addiction, the first step is understanding what it is and how it works in the human body. Having an understanding of the mechanics of opioid addiction gives us perspective and empathy for those suffering from it. Ultimately, the more we understand it, the better we can be at treating it. With over 80 opioid overdoses per day in the United States, opioid addiction has become a public health emergency. Let’s take a more in-depth look into the science behind opioid addiction and better arm ourselves for this battle.

Why Are Opioids More Desired than Other Drugs?

Opioids are powerful because they mimic endorphins in the brain. Heroin, for example, crosses the blood-brain barrier almost instantly. Opioid make people feel “high,” and act on the spinal cord, the brain, and receptors that affect physical pain and the perception of it.  They also affect receptors in the brain that sense carbon dioxide – that’s why people stop breathing with an opioid overdose.

The Role of Dopamine

Dopamine tells your brain what to pay attention to, and makes you want to keep doing it. Activities like eating food and sex – things we’re wired to do for survival – release dopamine. But opioids release much more dopamine in the brain than these natural triggers. Opioid addicts stop paying attention to natural dopamine triggers and cause pain to themselves and people in their life. After some time, opioid addicts use just to avoid being sick. The opioid user quickly transitions from using to feel good, to using just to feel normal.

How Brain Cells Deal with Opioids

To better understand opioid addiction, it’s helpful to understand some basics about how brain cells interact with each other. The brain is made up of billions of nerve cells called asneurons. A neuron contains three important parts: a central cell body, dendrites, and anaxon. The cell body directs all activities of the neuron. The dendrites are short fibers that receive messages from other neurons and relay them to the cell body. The anaxon, a long single fiber, transmits messages from the cell body to dendrites of other neurons or to body tissues, like muscles.  

The communication of a message from the axon of one nerve cell to the dendrites of another is known as neurotransmission. Opioids, as we discovered above, trigger an excess flow of the neurotransmitter dopamine.

Opioid Treatment

Now that you have a better understanding of what is actually happening in your brain and body with opioid addiction, you can understand why treatment is such a challenge. Because opioid addiction takes over your body, the two most common ways to treat it are with the medications methadone and buprenorphine-naltrexone. These medications ease your body off opioid dependency so you can physically function without the drug in your system.  

Along with dealing with physical addiction, addressing the underlying causes of addiction and making a long-term strategy to avoid relapse is equally important.


Are you or a loved one struggling with alcohol or other drugs? Call us to speak confidentially with a recovery expert now: (901) 521-1131 or visit our website serenityrecovery.org

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