Opioid Addiction and Methadone as a Treatment Option

This Is Your Brain on Opioids: Your Complete Guide to Opioid Effects on the Brain

opioid brain

Every year, millions of Americans receive prescription opioid painkillers to treat pain associated with a variety of conditions. And, every day, an average of 115 Americans die from an opioid overdose.

Clearly, the United States has an opioid issue.

What actually are opiates, though? How do they affect the brain? What can one do to overcome opioid addiction?

Read on to learn more about opiates and opioid effects on the brain.

What are Opiates?

You know that opiates are a type of drug. But, what makes them different from other types of painkillers? Why are they so dangerous?

Opiates are a narcotic drug derived from compounds extracted from the opium poppy flower.

Opiates Vs. Opioids

The terms “opiates” and “opioids” are often used interchangeably, but what is the difference between opioids and opiates?

The term “opiates” refers to drugs that are derived directly from the opium poppy flower.

The term “opioids,” on the other hand, refers to synthetic formulations of these drugs.

Both opiates and opioids are most frequently used to relieve pain (some are also used as cough suppressants). Opiates and opioids are both highly addictive and are frequently abused.

Most Frequently Abused Opiates and Opioids

These days, especially in the United States, opioid drugs are more commonly abused than opiates derived directly from the opium poppy plant.

Some of the most commonly abused opiates and opioid drugs include:

  • Codeine
  • Demerol
  • Dilaudid
  • Fentanyl
  • Heroin
  • Hydrocodone
  • Lortab
  • Morphine
  • Oxycodone
  • Oxycontin
  • Percocet
  • Tramadol
  • Vicodin
  • Zydone

No matter what they’re being used to treat, all of these drugs are highly dangerous and habit-forming.

What are Opioid Effects on the Brain?

What makes opioid drugs so addictive? The main reason opioid drugs seem to be so addictive is the fact that they affect the brain differently than other types of painkillers.

Opioid Receptors in the Brain

Everyone has opiate receptors in their brains, spinal cords, and in other locations throughout the body. These receptors function as active sites for various types of opiates.

Why does the brain have these receptors? Because the body produces its own endogenous neurotransmitters that bind to them to help relieve pain.

In most cases, these endogenous neurotransmitters are sufficient for blocking pain signals. Sometimes, these neurotransmitters are not enough, though.

The body isn’t able to produce enough natural opioids to provide relief for severe or chronic pain. If someone is struggling with either of these issues, their doctor may prescribe them an opioid drug like OxyContin to minimize their pain.

Opioids and Opioid Receptors

Opioid drugs activate the brain’s opioid receptors because their chemical structure mimics the structure of the body’s endogenous neurotransmitters.

Because the structure is so similar, it tricks the opioid receptors and relieves pain.

Opioids do more than just bind to the opioid receptors, though.

Regular opioid use also leads to an increase in the availability of dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that leads to increased feelings of pleasure.

Many people who consume opioids find that they enjoy this increase in dopamine availability. As a result, they continue to seek it out and continue taking opioid drugs.

It’s true that opioids are highly effective at treating pain. But, because they increase dopamine availability, they’re also very habit-forming.

Many people find that they develop a tolerance to the drugs over time. This, in turn, creates a need for a larger dosage in order to experience the same effects.

Signs of Opioid Addiction

Once an individual has become dependent on opioid drugs, when they go too long without using them, it’s common for them to experience a range of withdrawal symptoms.

Some of the most frequently experienced withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Abdominal cramps
  • Nausea
  • Digestive issues like diarrhea and vomiting
  • Excessive sweating
  • Fatigue
  • Seizures
  • Fever
  • Muscles aches and pains

The experience of withdrawal symptoms is one of the most common signs that an individual is dealing with addiction to opiates. Some other signs of addiction include:

  • Mood swings
  • Changes in judgment
  • Changes in energy levels
  • Sleep changes

If you or someone you love is experiencing these symptoms, it’s important to know that opioid addiction can be overcome. It may not be easy, but it’s definitely possible.

Overcoming Opioid Addiction

What does one do to overcome opioid addiction?

There are several different approaches people use to overcome their addiction, including the following:

Long-term Treatment

In a long-term treatment facility, an individual who is struggling with opioid addiction will receive 24-hour care.

Long-term treatment usually lasts for several months and takes place in a non-hospital setting.

During long-term treatment, an addict will work with medical and mental health professionals to safely detox and learn new ways to cope with stress and triggers to prevent relapse.

Short-term Treatment

As the name suggests, short-term treatment takes less time and usually lasts several weeks instead of several months.

It is typically modeled along the lines of the 12-step addiction recovery approach.

Most people who go through short-term treatment for opioid addiction also need to continue their treatment in an outpatient program.

Outpatient Treatment

Outpatient treatment is typically less expensive than other treatments methods. It’s a good option for those who can’t afford long- or short-term care. It also works well for individuals who work full-time or have extensive familial responsibilities.

Some outpatient programs involve just drug education. Others involve more intensive treatment options, including counseling and access to medication.


There are many medications that help minimize withdrawal symptoms and lessen the risk of relapse.

Some of the most well-known medications include:

  • Methadone
  • Buprenorphine
  • Naltrexone

No matter what type of treatment program an addict goes through, medication can be a helpful component.

Want to Learn More?

For many people, being informed about opioid effects on the brain is very empowering.

It can help them recognize signs of addiction and figure out when they or someone they love needs to seek help.

Do you want to learn more about opioid effects on the brain? Or, do you want to learn more about overcoming addiction in general?

No matter what kind of information about opioids you’re looking for, our site is a great resource.

Start by checking out our opioid addiction blog posts today.



Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018, December 19). Understanding the Epidemic. Retrieved from www.cdc.gov: https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/epidemic/index.html

Alcohol and Drug Policy Commission. (2019, February). Opiates or Opioids – What’s the difference? Retrieved from Alcohol and Drug Policy Commission: https://www.oregon.gov/adpc/Pages/Opiate-Opioid.aspx



About the author

Dr. Michael Carlton, MD.

Leading addictionologist, Michael Carlton, M.D. has over 25 years of experience as a medical practitioner. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering and returned for his MD from the College of Medicine at the University of Arizona in 1990. He completed his dual residency in Internal Medicine and Pediatrics and his Fellowship in Toxicology at Good Samaritan Regional Medical Center and Phoenix Children’s Hospital.

He has published articles in the fields of toxicology and biomedicine, crafted articles for WebMD, and lectured to his peers on medication-assisted treatment. Dr. Carlton was a medical director of Community Bridges and medically supervised the medical detoxification of over 30,000 chemically dependent patients annually.

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