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Mental and Physical Effects of Long-Term Opioid or Painkiller Addiction

Drug overdose deaths are at the highest they have ever been, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

In 2016, according to data, the majority of these deaths involved opioids. It is estimated that during that same year, more than 11 million people abused prescription opioids. For some people in this population, abusing these medications is setting the stage for a battle with long-term opioid addiction and the life-changing mental and physical effects that come with that.

Opioid Addiction Can Have Lasting Effects on Recovering Users

The mental and physical effects of a long-term opioid painkiller addiction make this feat challenging.  Without professional help from a drug rehabilitation center, many opioid users are at risk of overdosing and dying. Even people who take them for strictly medical reasons can still develop a physical dependence or psychological dependence on them, which is what is an addiction is. Long-term opioid addiction has negative mental and physical effects, which are listed below.

Mental Effects of Long-Term Opioid Addiction

Lasting psychological effects of long-term opioid addiction are persistent as a result of abusing opioids.  Some of those effects are:

  • Anxiety
  • Anger
  • Depression
  • Confusion
  • Paranoia
  • Mood swings
  • Irritability
  • Hallucinations
  • Suicidal ideations
  • Impaired judgment
  • Loss of pleasure
  • Reckless behavior
withdrawal side effects

Long-term opioid use also can bring about structural and functional changes in the brain. As a result, dependent opioid users lose the ability to cope with pain on their own without the use of pain relievers. In other words, long-term opioid use has been found to cause significantly decreased pain tolerance. Additionally, users begin to experience pain more intensely since they don’t consistently have high levels of opiate painkillers in their systems.

Physical Effects of Long-Term Opioid Addiction

Whatever is put into the body can affect how it runs and how well it looks. Long-term risks from opioid addiction can include the following:

Long-Term Physical Effects

  • Breathing problems (respiratory depression)
  • Abnormally low blood pressure
  • Fatigue
  • Chest pain
  • Irreversible damage to the organs (liver, heart, kidneys)
  • Brain damage
  • Seizures
  • Cardiac arrest
  • Heart failure
  • Acid reflux
  • Diarrhea
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea, Vomiting

Other health problems that stem from long-term opioid abuse include a compromised immune system. For addicted opioid users who used needles to inject heroin and other opioids, there is a higher risk of being exposed to an infection, such as pneumonia, a lung infection, or contracting a disease, such as hepatitis, human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), and other blood infections.

If you or someone you know is experiencing these, consider calling a drug treatment facility to get started on opioid addiction treatment.

What Are Opioids?

As explained by the CDC, opioids are natural or synthetic chemicals that interact and bind with opioid receptors on the nerve cells in the body and brain to reduce the intensity of pain and feelings of pain.  Opioid prescription medications are used to treat people who experience moderate-to-severe pain after an injury or surgery. They are also prescribed to people who have cancer or other severe health conditions. Opioids also include the illegal drug heroin and pain medications such as oxycodone (OxyContin), hydrocodone (Vicodin), morphine, codeine, fentanyl, and others.

These medications are intended for short-term use and are generally considered safe when taken for a short time. These drugs are potent, however, and can lead to the road of addiction if not handled properly and with care.

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How Opioid Addiction Develops

The CDC advises that anyone can develop a dependence on opioid painkillers. It cited data that show as many as 1 in 4 patients who receive long-term opioid therapy in a primary care setting struggles with opioid addiction. Still, not everyone will become addicted to opioids, even if they are used long-term. It’s important to understand, however, that the longer they are misused or abused, chances are greater that addiction can develop.

Opioid addiction develops as users repeatedly take the drugs to experience euphoria, relaxation, pain relief, and other sensations that the medications produce. Once the brain is flooded with the neurochemicals dopamine and serotonin, the reward and pleasure center of the brain are activated, and the behavior of taking the drug in high doses is associated with the sensations felt. Users crave these feelings over and over again, so to experience those feelings, users take the drugs outside of the prescribed amount, which can lead them to misuse and abuse. Over time, the brain adapts to these drugs as a person takes the drug because now, at this point, it’s a habit.

According to 201 report from PBS NewsHour, the Mu-opiate receptor is responsible for the effects of all opiates and opioids, whether the drug is heroin, oxycodone, or fentanyl.

“The depression, the analgesia [pain numbing], the constipation and the euphoria — if you take away the Mu-opioid receptor, and you give morphine, then you don’t have any of those effects,” Chris Evans, director of the Brain Research Institute of the University of California, Los Angeles, told PBS Newshour for its 2017 report on opioids.

Chronic opioid use leads to a high physical tolerance for the drugs. Regular users will start to notice that over time, their highs won’t be as strong as the ones they had before because of the tolerance they have.

Prolonged, heavy opioid use also results in the brain developing more opioid receptors that can bind with the excessive amounts in the body. This means users will start to increase the amounts of their drug of choice to achieve the effects they want to feel.

They also may change the manner in which they use the drug so that they will get the strongest high possible. People smoke, snort, or inject opioid drugs, such as heroin. The injection method ensures the substance goes directly into the bloodstream and reaches the brain faster. The effects on the brain last a long time, possibly a lifetime, as they change the brain’s structure and function.


The urge to take the drugs becomes hard to control despite the negative consequences that follow. This is just one sign that someone is struggling with addiction. Other signs include:

  • Intense cravings for opioids alcohol or other addictive substances
  • Intense focus and effort on obtaining opioid drugs to use them
  • Strong need to use opioids daily or multiple times a day.
  • Experiencing withdrawal symptoms once opioid use has stopped
  • Using opioids to cope with or avoid life’s challenges
  • Exhibiting high-risk behaviors while under the influence of a substance
  • Failing to stop substance use despite earlier attempts

Other signs and symptoms of opioid abuse include:

Signs of Opioid Abuse

  • Anxiety
  • Agitation
  • Drowsiness
  • Shallow or slow breathing
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Constipation
  • Poor coordination
  • Poor decision-making
  • Abandonment of responsibilities
  • Slurred speech
  • Sleeping more or less than normal
  • Mood swings
  • Euphoria (intense high)
  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Lowered motivation

Many people who have developed a physical or psychological dependence on opioids find it difficult to stop on their own. Those who have built up a tolerance over time struggle with debilitating withdrawal symptoms that make it hard to stop.

The first phase withdrawal symptoms include:

First Phase Withdrawal Symptoms

  • Agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Body aches
  • Increased tearing
  • Insomnia
  • Runny nose
  • Sweating
  • Hot and cold flashes
  • Confusion
  • Dehydration
  • Lethargy

In the second phase, symptoms will start to peak and may become more uncomfortable. Those symptoms include:

Second Phase Withdrawal Symptoms

  • Cramping
  • Diarrhea
  • Pupil dilation
  • Goosebumps
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

Some users in opioid withdrawal may quit the drugs abruptly in an attempt to end their addiction and detox on their own. This is highly dangerous and not recommended. Opioid withdrawal can be tough to manage without professional help. The symptoms can cause so much discomfort that users are at a risk of relapse, which can also result in permanent injury or death.

Addressing Opioid Painkiller Addiction

People who want to get help for opioid addiction can enter a licensed, reputable rehabilitation center to get help. Addiction recovery starts with a medical detox that can help users withdraw from the drugs safely and comfortably with the help of licensed medical professionals and experienced clinicians. After detox, you enroll in a treatment program in a particular setting based on your specific needs.

These settings include inpatient or residential, intensive outpatient, and others. Addiction recovery in these environments also includes a variety of therapies that allow recovering users to understand the roots of their addiction and adopt coping strategies and skills that encourage decision-making that supports sobriety. Aftercare services offer support after treatment ends that help people get their lives back on track after addiction.

Users also may recover from opioid addiction with the help of Medication-Assisted Treatment, which combines behavior therapy and medications to treat substance use disorder. The medications, such as buprenorphine and naltrexone, are approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. They are used to treat addiction to short-acting opioids, among them oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, heroin, and morphine, as the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) explains.




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