How Opioids Cause Addiction

How Opioids Cause Addiction

answer isn’t simple

We all have heard that opioids can be addictive, but what actually causes opioid addiction?  It turns out that the answer isn’t simple.  While there is a physical addiction to the medications there are also psychological and social issues that can contribute to the problem.

The Brain


The first part of
addiction is the result of changes that take place in the brain.  Opioids work by binding the opioid receptors
in the nerve cells of the brain and other organs.  They connect to these receptors like a key in
a lock.


In this case the
result of the connection is that the nerve sends a signal to the brain that
pain is at a lower level than it really is. 
At the same time, opioids activate the reward system of the brain.  They cause the body and mind to feel


This sense of
pleasure can cause people to keep taking the drugs repeatedly in order to feel
the pleasure.  But over time, the body
becomes more tolerant to the drug and it takes more and more of the drug to
feel pleasure – or even just normal.


This occurs because
over time, the brain cells with the opioid receptors become less responsive
with repeated exposure to the drug.  More
of the drug is needed to stimulate these receptors and the reward center of the


Physical Tolerance


When the opioid is
taken away, the brain cells release excessive chemicals to reverse the
suppression of the opioid.  As a result
one feels anxiety, jittery, and physical symptoms such as diarrhea, nausea, and
muscle cramps appear.


Obviously those
symptoms are very uncomfortable and the easiest way to counteract them is to
reintroduce the opioid.  And the body
becomes more and more dependent on the drugs to avoid these negative symptoms.


This begins to lead
to a craving for the drugs and a compulsive need to have them.  However, it is possible to taper off and
reduce many of these symptoms so that the drug can be discontinued. 


For people who are
not at risk of addiction, this tapering off will be sufficient.  But addiction is complicated and isn’t just
about the physical tolerance of the drug. 
There are other factors at play.





Many people who
struggle with addiction have additional genetic factors at work.    These are not well understood, but people
with a family history of addiction are more likely to experience the biological
issues associated with it.


People who are more
vulnerable to stress often battle addiction at higher rates than typical
peers.  There are also conditions such as
mental health disorders that can make addiction a greater risk.  Many people seek the feelings of pleasure to
counteract negative feelings and experiences.


Environmental and Experiential Factors


The environment also
plays a factor in addiction.  People who
struggle with trauma that has occurred often find the psychological pleasure
associated with opioids a relief.  It
provides a temporary band aid for their emotional pain.


People who are
exposed to drugs throughout their lives through family members or friends also
normalize drug use and can be more likely to experience addiction.

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