Opioid painkillers were never intended for long-term use. They work very well for people who have been badly injured, people who have just undergone a medical procedure, such as a surgery, or people with terminal illnesses. Unfortunately, many people believe they are the only way to treat chronic pain, such as back pain. Others just misuse opioid painkillers, perhaps self-medicating depression or anxiety, and become addicted. Whatever your reasons for long-term use, you should be aware of the long-term effects of using opioid medications.
Perhaps the most obvious consequence of long-term use of opioids is addiction. The CDC recommends keeping opioid prescriptions to seven days or less, especially for more potent drugs. That’s because they are extremely addictive and you can form a physical dependence in as little as two weeks of regular use.
As you build a tolerance for opioids, you need a higher dose to feel the same effects. When that dose gets high enough, you risk an overdose, which can be fatal. When you overdose, your breathing becomes suppressed, and your blood pressure and heart rate drop to dangerous levels. You build a tolerance to the pain relieving effects of opioids much faster than you build a tolerance to the breathing suppressing effects, which means your risk increases as you build a tolerance.
There is significant overlap between long-term opioid use and depression. Some of it is that people who take opioids for reasons associated with chronic pain or poor health are more likely to be depressed. People who are already depressed may also take opioids as a way of self-medicating. However, there is also evidence that prolonged opioid use and addiction also lead to depression, possibly by engendering a sense of anxiety and helplessness. Among people on long-term opioid therapy, the rate of depression is about 38 percent.
Ironically, one consequence of prolonged use of opioid painkillers might be more pain. A condition called opioid-induced hyperalgesia paradoxically makes you more sensitive to pain. You not only experience your chronic pain more acutely, but you may spontaneously feel new pains for no apparent reason.
In addition to depression and addiction, long-term opioid use has other cognitive effects, including poor concentration, nodding off, poor memory, dizziness, and impaired coordination. These are inconvenient in themselves, but they also increase your risk of being injured in an accident. In fact, bone fractures are more common among people who have been using opioids long term.
Many health effects
There are a number of adverse health effects of long-term opioid use and they affect many different systems. In addition to the respiratory depression from overdose, about three quarters people on long-term opioid therapy will experience sleep-disordered breathing, such as sleep apnea, which prevents your body and brain from getting enough oxygen. Long-term opioid use is also associated with an increased risk in cardiovascular problems, such as heart attack. For men, long-term opioid use can cause a drop in testosterone, leading to sexual dysfunction. And long-term opioid use suppresses the immune system, leading to increased risk of illness.
If you’re struggling with substance use, Recovery Ways can help. We offer intensive outpatient treatment as well as residential treatment. Recovery Ways is a premier drug and alcohol addiction treatment facility located in Salt Lake City, Utah. Our mission is to provide the most cost-effective, accessible substance abuse treatment to as many people as possible. Request information online or call us today at 1-888-986-7848.