The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) states that addiction is a chronic disease. As a complex disorder, it affects physical, mental, emotional, social, financial, and even legal stability. Addiction is often associated with substances like alcohol or drugs, but behaviors like gambling or sex can also trigger it.
Since addiction is considered a chronic condition, it requires long-term treatment. The effects of addiction to drugs or alcohol are often physical. Some may be acute issues, and some may lead to further chronic health problems.
Drugs related to opium are some of the most widely abused substances in the world, with millions of people struggling with addiction to both prescription and illicit narcotics. Opium itself was cultivated in Mesopotamia as early as 3400 B.C., and the history of opium consumption involves using the drug as a pain-killing medical treatment and abusing it recreationally to get high.
Since opium triggered compulsive behaviors but was also a useful medication, researchers began to develop different solutions and versions of the substance to get the most benefit with the least addiction potential. In 1803, morphine was invented. It was the first synthetic opioid, derived from the opium poppy.
As the original synthetic narcotic, morphine was used widely in medical treatment, especially during the Civil War; however, it was soon found to be more potent than opium and trigger addiction. Other synthetics, starting with heroin, were derived from opium after that.
Modern prescription opioids like oxycodone, codeine, and hydrocodone come from morphine. Medical researchers still seek the right combination of analgesic properties with lower addiction risk.
While there are dozens of prescription and illicit narcotics available now, morphine still has an important medical use and is prescribed to manage pain. If you are prescribed morphine to treat moderate or severe pain, or you struggle with morphine addiction, it is important to know the risks, side effects, and potential for long-lasting effects on you physically and mentally.
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Morphine is a generic opioid drug that is available for prescription under several brand names. As an opioid medication, it is prescribed to alleviate moderate-to-severe pain. Morphine binds to the opioid receptors in the brain, which are located in the nucleus accumbens. This not only relieves pain signals traveling up the spinal cord, but it also suppresses the breathing rate and releases dopamine and serotonin, which leads to a sense of relaxation, increased drowsiness, and potentially a euphoric high. Dopamine and serotonin elevate mood, and dopamine in particular triggers the brain’s reward system, which can lead to compulsive behaviors and addiction.
If you struggle with moderate-to-severe pain from an injury or illness, or if you have recently had surgery that will take some time to heal, you may be prescribed morphine to manage the intensity of pain. It is important to follow your doctor’s orders closely, including avoiding alcohol, other opiates, other sedatives or muscle relaxants, or illicit drugs while you are taking this prescription medication.
If you are taking other medications, be sure to talk to your doctor about potential side effects or interactions while you take morphine. If you have a history of substance abuse, make sure your doctor knows this, too. They can help you manage a morphine prescription and avoid relapse or addiction to this drug.
Taking more morphine than prescribed, taking it more often than prescribed, or mixing it with other substances increases acute and chronic health risks. The biggest risk associated with morphine misuse or abuse is a drug overdose, which can be deadly.
If you or someone near you overdoses on morphine, call 911 immediately. Signs of a morphine overdose include:
The greatest risk from overdosing on morphine is oxygen deprivation from being unable to breathe. This is a serious, life-threatening situation that requires emergency medical attention.
Even taking morphine as prescribed can lead to some side effects. Side effects are associated with opioid consumption, some of which are more common, while others are rare. Common side effects include:
The riskiest side effect is getting high from morphine. Many people may feel intoxicated when they take morphine, especially if they have not taken opioid drugs before. However, some people may find this intoxication pleasant, which may lead to misuse of the prescription and then addiction to the drug.
The most harmful long-lasting side effect from taking morphine is the risk of addiction. If you follow your doctor’s instructions regarding morphine, your risk of addiction to the drug is low; however, if you misuse the drug or take it for nonmedical reasons, you could develop an addiction to this substance that requires specific medical treatment through detox and rehabilitation.
Like short-term side effects, taking morphine to treat chronic pain can also lead to some long-term side effects that can impact your life. Taking any opioid medication consistently for a long time can cause chronic issues in parts of the body.
Gastrointestinal system: Constipation is one of the most widely reported and complained about side effects from taking morphine or related opioid drugs. Between 40 percent and 45 percent of patients on opioid therapy report struggling with constipation. About 25 percent experience nausea, which affects appetite and can further change the digestive system. A doctor likely will prescribe laxatives, but chronic constipation can damage the bowels, leading to vomiting, bloating, and abdominal bleeding. Orally consumed opioids like morphine may also lead to ulcers.
Respiratory system: An acute risk of abusing too much morphine involves suppressed breathing, which can lead to oxygen deprivation and death. Over time, regular doses of morphine can mildly suppress breathing, which also causes oxygen deprivation, but chronic low levels of oxygen are harmful in a different way. They can damage the brain, lungs, and heart, among other organs. About 10 percent of people taking opioids long-term experience hypoxemia, or blood oxygen saturation levels of less than 90 percent. It is also important to note that physical tolerance to analgesic effects and euphoric effects does not necessarily parallel tolerance to respiratory effects. Misusing or abusing morphine can lead to deadly respiratory depression even if you do not feel intoxicated.
Cardiovascular system: A study of Medicare patients with arthritis, who were receiving opioids for chronic pain, found that about 77 percent had an increased risk of cardiovascular events like myocardial infarction and heart failure. The risk increased the longer opioid drugs, including morphine, were taken. During the first month of treatment, risks were no different than the control group, while after 180 days of opioid treatment, different opioids increased the risk of heart problems at different rates.
Central nervous system (brain and spinal cord): Because morphine and other opioids release endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine, long-term consumption of these drugs can change structures in the brain that interact with, and rely on, these neurotransmitters. Mood disorders increase. For example, about 38 percent of people who take opioids for a long time have comorbid clinical depression.
Ongoing opioid therapy also paradoxically increases the risk of hyperalgesia, or increased pain sensations. People who take morphine or related medications for six months or more to treat moderate or severe pain are more likely to feel higher levels of pain if and when they stop taking morphine. Increased pain sensitivity is one of the leading reasons that doctors are prescribing opioids at lower rates in addition to the high risk of addiction.
Musculoskeletal system: Dizziness from low blood pressure leads to an increased risk of fainting and falling while taking morphine, which increases the risk of bone fractures from an injury. Taking opioids for a long time is also associated with muscle weakness and less muscle tone, which may be due to lethargy, feeling ill or dizzy consistently, or chronic hypoxia.
Endocrine system: Hormone regulation changes the longer opioids like morphine are consumed. Both male and female hormones are affected, leading to a lower sex drive and reduced fertility.
Morphine and other opioids also impact the body’s management of all other hormones, including thyroid and metabolism hormones, growth hormones, adrenaline, and pituitary hormones. This can change one’s mood, appetite, and physical growth, among other effects.
Immune system: Morphine and fentanyl, in particular, have an adverse impact on the immune system. They can suppress one’s immune response, leading to an increased risk of illness and infection. The cause is believed to be interaction with the mu-opioid receptors in the brain, which regulate all immune cells. The impact on the pituitary and adrenal glands also changes how the immune system responds to infections.
Serious side effects may require emergency medical attention, especially when an overdose or allergic reaction is the issue. Otherwise, side effects that are uncomfortable may need prescription help. Again, the most common side effect is constipation, which should be treated with laxatives or fiber supplements, as it can be harmful.
You should always discuss concerns about your medication and its side effects with your doctor. Short-term side effects are managed differently from long-term effects, and it is important to know which side effects may be risky for you.
No, dependence and addiction are separate conditions. While many people who become addicted to morphine develop a physical dependence on it, you may develop a physical dependence on your prescribed dose of morphine without craving the drug, compulsively misusing or abusing it, or purchasing it illegally online or on the black market to get high.
If you struggle with morphine addiction, the first step is to enter detox treatment. If you took morphine to treat chronic pain but now abuse the drug, your doctor can help you manage addiction symptoms while also continuing pain treatment.
Rehabilitation is the next step after detox. Evidence-based rehabilitation programs should include behavioral therapies such as group and individual therapy, and they will likely include family therapy, mindfulness practices, and other helpful approaches to managing stress.
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