Opioids can have several adverse effects on the central nervous system, as outlined in a paper in the Journal of Pain & Palliative Care Pharmacotherapy:
- Lowering the level of consciousness
- Reduced ability to react
- Toxic effects on neurons
That paper specifically looks at the adverse effects of opioids on the central nervous system of patients in palliative care. More generally, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) describes the effects of opioids on the limbic system, brainstem, and spinal cord.
Opioids Act on the Brainstem and Affect Breathing
Opioids can also affect the brainstem, which is responsible for controlling automatic behaviors like breathing. By affecting the brainstem, opioids can slow breathing, prevent coughing, and reduce pain sensation. Further, the NIDA explains that opioids can block air from entering the lungs.
Overdose of opioids can have severe adverse effects on breathing to the point that the person suffocates, according to the NIDA.
Opioids Act on the Limbic System and Affect Emotion
Opioids act on the limbic system, which plays a role in dictating human emotion. When opioids act upon the limbic system, it can cause the person to experience feelings of euphoria, relaxation, and contentment.
This is similar to the description in the report from the Journal of Pain & Palliative Care Pharmacotherapy of opioids’ ability to lower the level of consciousness. According to that report, opioids can cause sedation, drowsiness, and sleep disturbance. Such effects can make driving, operating machinery, or performing other tasks dangerous. Further, the euphoria created by opioid use creates a risk of substance abuse.
Opioids Act on the Spinal Cord and Brain and Affect Pain Sensation
Opioids relieve pain and doctors may prescribe them to patients who undergo surgery or who otherwise experience pain. Opioids relieve pain by acting on the opioid receptors in the spinal cord and brain. Their effects on the limbic system, described above, can also reduce pain by improving emotion.
However, long-term pain relief from opioids is not well-supported and might lead to worsening of pain or increased sensitivity to pain, reports the NIDA. This increased sensitivity to pain is known as hyperalgesia. The Journal of Pain & Palliative Care Pharmacotherapy report states the toxic effects of opioids on neurons could include hyperalgesia.
Getting Help for Opioid Addiction
If you or someone you love is suffering from opioid addiction, seek treatment from licensed professionals. Among the possible treatments for addiction to drugs like opioids are:
- Outpatient behavioral counseling
- Certain medications to prevent relapse
- Inpatient or residential treatment
Legal Options for Individuals Harmed by Opioids
In some cases, individuals harmed by opioids or opioid addiction may have grounds to pursue legal action and recover damages. For example, if a doctor over-prescribed opioid medication, you may be able to sue your doctor for opioid addiction.