Opioid Side Effects That You May Not Know About—But Should

Opioid Side Effects That You May Not Know About—But Should

If you’re like most people, you are aware that there is a growing opioid abuse epidemic in America. Your knowledge probably includes the common side effects that can result from opioid use or addiction—such as nausea, constipation, and drowsiness—but there are several other side effects that may not be as well publicized. Many of those side effects can pose substantial health risks, which means you should be aware of the potential issues stemming from their use that would require opiate treatment. Here’s what you should know:


Some Opioid Basics

As you’d suspect from the name, opioids are derived from opium, a substance from the poppy flower. There are three types of opiates—morphine, codeine, and thebaine—as well as opioid medications that are similar to opiates. The semisynthetic opioid medications include oxycodone (also well-known under one of its brand names, OxyContin), hydrocodone (such as Vicodin), and hydromorphone (such as Dilaudid). Synthetic medications include fentanyl (brand names Ionsys and Duragesic) and methadone (whose brand names include Dolophine and Methadose).

These powerful pain relievers work by activating receptors in the body, such as in the spinal cord, brain, and the gastrointestinal system. Not surprisingly, these are the areas that are especially susceptible to side effects from opioids, but there are other problems that can crop up throughout the body as well. Suffering from one or more of these problems could be a sign that opiate treatment is necessary to prevent worsening health issues. Here are some places where opioids can pose potential problems.


The Brain

Opioids can numb the sensations of pain in the body, but they can also numb the mind. Opioids can slow down cognitive function—which explains the feelings of drowsiness or inertia that are common side effects in people who use opioids. The brain can be affected in other ways. A 2014 study in the journal Pain Physician noted that patients who used opioid medications showed decreased capacity for processing spatial information and problems with working memory assessment. Reaction times also can be slower. In fact, opioids may change the structure of the brain itself, with parts of it growing or shrinking in volume.

Another cognitive side effect that would warrant opiate treatment is the susceptibility to opioid tolerance. The brain and body can adapt to the effect of opioids, to the point that the medication loses its desired effect. That means more of the medication would be needed, thereby increasing the chances of dependency.


The Respiratory System

Opioids can slow down breathing, which in turn means less oxygen is coming into the lungs and body while more carbon dioxide is being retained. This can be problematic during sleep—breathing can slow down to the point of stopping, especially for people with sleep apnea, which causes interrupted breathing—and for people who have a lung disease. Respiratory problems can also potentially result in brain damage.


The Gastrointestinal System

Opioids are a well-known cause of gastrointestinal distress in the form of constipation and nausea, the latter of which can also cause vomiting. But opioid medications can also cause discomfort in the abdomen with their potential for bloating and stomach distension. And some patients can experience diarrhea instead of constipation.


The Endocrine System

The endocrine system is made up of the glands throughout your body that produce the hormones necessary to keep you healthy and your body working properly. Opioids may cause a decrease in hormone production. That can pose numerous health risks—for instance, if the pituitary gland produces less of a certain type of hormone, that can cause a decrease in the release of other hormones such as estrogen and testosterone. That can result in problems such as lowered libido, fatigue, and night sweats in men, and irregular menstrual cycles, a lower sex drive, and the potential risk of infertility in women. In these cases, opiate treatment is crucial for both men and women.


Other Side Effects

There are many other issues that can result from opioid misuse that would also call for opiate treatment. Among them:

  • Restlessness
  • Pain in the muscles and bones
  • Insomnia
  • Liver damage
  • An itching sensation in the skin known as pruritus
  • Dry mouth
  • Weight gain or loss of appetite
  • Longer recovery period from surgery
  • Greater sensitivity to pain, called hyperalgesia
  • Accidental overdose and, possibly, death
  • For seniors, risk of cardiovascular issues, gastrointestinal bleeding, fractures, and hospitalization for opiate side effects

It’s also worth noting that opioid misuse or abuse doesn’t just affect you as an individual, but society as a whole. There are increased medical costs involved in caring for people with opioid-related health problems, as well as costs for businesses when employees are either disabled or miss work because their opioid use prevents them carrying through with their normal duties. Opioid-related crimes also take a toll on communities and law enforcement agencies. Because of the many side effects that can come with opioid abuse or addiction, it’s crucial to seek out opiate treatment if you or a loved one is struggling.


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