Opioid withdrawal affects the brain by prompting it to transition back to its pre-drug chemistry. While the end result is a healthier state of being for the brain, the process can be extremely disruptive and painful if it is not handled carefully.
How Opioids Affect the Brain
Opioid abuse causes significant changes to the brain’s chemistry, eventually leading to opioid tolerance, dependence, and addiction. Opioids can make you feel relaxed, relieve pain, and – when taken in large amounts – induce intense feelings of euphoria.
The brain adjusts to the presence of opioids by modifying its internal chemistry to produce different amounts of enzymes and chemicals than usual. Over time, the brain will overcompensate so much that an opiate abuser will be unable to reach the euphoria he or she achieved before. Even after he or she reaches this point, however, an opioid abuser will often continue to take opioids anyway to avoid the onset of withdrawal symptoms.
Normal Brain Chemistry
The brain typically produces natural chemicals that link to its opioid receptors and trigger the release of other chemicals that maintain the body’s levels of alertness, respiratory control, pleasure, muscle tone, and other core functions.
Altered Brain Chemistry During Opioid Abuse
When opioids are introduced into the system, they link to the opioid receptors instead and artificially trigger the body’s pleasure response. Over time, the brain adjusts to this altered environment by producing less of the natural chemicals that normally control those and related responses. This reduces the body’s ability to control its own level of alertness, leads to shallower breathing, and can make it difficult to maintain focus or coordination.
Long-Term Effects of Opioid Abuse on Brain Chemistry
Although the body makes less of its natural opiate-like chemicals, it starts to make more of other chemicals to try to counteract the presence of artificial opioids flooding the system. This is why an opioid abuser must take increasingly greater amounts of drugs to achieve the same effects he or she experienced before.
How Opioid Withdrawal Affects the Brain
When an opioid user stops their abuse of the drug, the brain suddenly finds itself with too little of its natural, opiate-like chemical and too much of the counteracting chemicals it had been making to counteract the artificial opioids that were being used before. This leads to the classic symptoms of opioid withdrawal: muscle cramps, pain, anxiety, restlessness, and spasms.
Brain Recovery and Opioid Withdrawal
It can take the brain many weeks to return to its pre-drug state depending on the length and severity of the abuse it is recovering from. Until it does, the uncomfortable symptoms of withdrawal will persist unless artificial opioids are once again introduced to the system. This relieves the symptoms of withdrawal, but prolongs the recovery time.
Several medications are designed to help former opioid abusers through this transition with minimal discomfort. Drugs like methadone emulate commonly abused opioids like heroin, morphine, and oxycodone by binding to the body’s opioid receptors, but are designed to provide a long-lasting effect that increases pleasure, reduces cravings, and improves the patients’ ability to focus on everyday tasks. It can be helpful to pair these medication-assisted treatments with counseling or therapy to help make the transition smoother for the patient.