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No one ever wakes up in the morning wanting to be an addict. Opioid addiction typically starts innocently enough with a prescription from a doctor or taking a pill for temporary pain relief. But it is these exact circumstances that have led to the opioid crisis gripping our nation.

A new study published in June 2017 by one of our nation’s largest health insurance providers found that there was a 493% increase in opioid use disorder diagnosis from 2010 through 2016.1

No matter how your opioid use began, recovery starts by understanding the effect of painkillers on the brain.

Keep reading to learn how opioids work and the help and support that is available to you if you feel your dependency has turned into an addiction.

First, What Are Opioids, Exactly?

Opioids are highly addictive pain medications that are effective at managing and treating persistent or severe pain. Doctors prescribe opioids to patients recovering from an injury or surgery or suffering from chronic pain.

Why Are Opioids So Dangerous?

When opioid medication is taken as directed by a doctor, it will safely control pain symptoms. The danger lies in tolerance levels.

As opioid use continues, the mind builds a tolerance for the drug and begins to require a higher dose to experience the necessary pain relief. As drug tolerance levels rise, the risk of physical dependency, abuse, addiction and overdose significantly increases.

How Opioids Affect the Brain

Addiction can happen fast and without many warning signs. Once addiction is present, a vicious cycle ensues that takes control over the brain.

How Prescription Opioids Work

Prescription opioid drugs attach to opioid receptors in the brain and signal an extreme release of dopamine.

  • Dopamine is an important neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure system and important daily behaviors, such as movement, emotion and memory.
  • Naturally occurring opioids help calm the body by releasing a normal amount of dopamine, producing organic reward and pleasure functions.
  • Synthetic opioids cause an excess release of dopamine.
  • Synthetic opioids are successful at binding to the brain’s opioid receptors because their chemical structure mimics that of a natural neurotransmitter.

Once dopamine is released, the brain’s reward system is inundated, producing a very powerful, euphoric high. In this state, pain is blocked, breathing rate is reduced and a sense of relaxation and calm floods the body.

  • Pain medication is essential with chronic and severe pain because the body cannot produce enough natural opioids to block high levels of pain.
  • Although synthetic opioids mimic natural brain chemicals, they can’t activate nerve cells, which leads to abnormal communication functions between the brain and the body.

The brain associates the action of taking pain pills with pleasure or reward and naturally wants to repeat the action over and over.

  • The brain is wired to repeat activities that trigger or stimulate the reward and pleasure system.
  • When the reward and pleasure system is activated, the brain takes note that an activity is important and should be repeated.
  • Synthetic opioids trick the brain into associating taking painkillers with pleasure or reward.

An opioid addiction begins and tolerance builds.

  • A tolerance grows because the brain becomes less responsive to prescription opioids the longer they’re used.
  • The more opioids are consumed, the larger the dose needs to be in order to achieve the desired high.
  • Additionally, natural endorphins are no longer released because of the increased opioid use. This makes opioid users more vulnerable to pain symptoms and reduces their ability to naturally feel happy.

In summary, the brain essentially trains itself to be addicted to opioids.

Once addicted, the withdrawal process can produce unpleasant, sometimes dangerous, symptoms. Because of how opioids affect the brain, the vast majority of opioid addicts face many challenges when trying to detox at home, unassisted – often leading to relapse or overdose.

A medically assisted withdrawal can help an addict achieve a successful detox and sober future by alleviating painful side effects, reducing drug cravings, avoiding serious complications and teaching vital life skills that help recovering addicts recalibrate their mind.

Prescription Drug Treatment at Covenant Hills

It’s time to put your opioid addiction behind you and live the life you were meant to lead. You can reclaim control over your mind, body and spirit at Covenant Hills. Through our faith-based treatment program, your recovery journey will be supported by our dedicated staff and focused on your Whole Person Health, our comprehensive treatment approach. Learn more about our prescription drug treatment, or contact us for a free and confidential assessment.


1 Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield. America’s opioid epidemic and its effect on the nation’s commercially-insured population. Accessed April 14, 2018.