Morphine is a strong pain reliever derived from opium that is extracted from the poppy plant. It is widely used in both medical and recreational settings. It is an effective pain reliever that also produces a sense of euphoria, which is why many people abuse it. While morphine does a very good job of reducing pain, it can be highly addictive, and it can quickly lead to tolerance and physical dependence in users who are not careful.
Medically, morphine is used in severe cases of pain, such as after surgery, after a major accident, or to help patients manage pain caused by cancer treatment. It also can be used to suppress a severe cough. It used to be administered through an injection, though these days, it is usually given as a pill or solution that you drink.
Morphine enters the bloodstream and activates receptors in the brain that respond to opioids. These receptors then send messages of pain relief throughout the body. Additional effects of morphine entering the bloodstream are sleepiness, sedation, and respiratory depression. When used extensively, psychological and physical dependence are likely to occur.
Tolerance to a drug can develop in anyone and to a wide range of drugs. People develop tolerance when using drugs recreationally and when using them as prescribed by a doctor.
Tolerance refers to the process by which increasingly greater doses of a drug are needed to achieve the same desired effects. These effects may be pain relief or euphoric feelings. Either way, the body adapts to the drug and becomes less sensitive to it.
Drug tolerance is not the same thing as addiction, though it can lead there. Tolerance means your body is no longer as sensitive to the effects of the drug as it used to be. Your system changes in response to the drug when the drug has consistently been in your body for an extended period.
Typically, tolerance occurs as your body learns how to metabolize the drug faster and because the strength and number of cell receptors available for the drug decreases. When people attempt to treat tolerance by increasing their doses, they increase their risks of developing dependence and addiction to the drug.
Tolerance to Morphine
Tolerance to opioids, such as morphine, can happen quickly. Patients using morphine to treat pain may start to need more pills throughout the day to control the same levels of pain. Doctors may take note of this progression and switch their patients to longer-acting pills, so fewer pills are needed throughout the day. Eventually, however, tolerance will develop to long-acting forms of opioids as well, and stronger dosages will be needed to produce the same pain-relieving effects.
It is important to note that this pattern of tolerance does not indicate addiction. It is the body’s physiological response to the drug rather than a psychological response.
Patients can develop a tolerance to morphine even when it is taken exactly as prescribed by their doctor. It just depends on how their body responds and adapts to the morphine.
It can be expected, however, that anyone who takes morphine daily for an extended period will develop some tolerance to it. Some people may experience tolerance after just a few days of continued use.
Possibility of Abuse
Even though developing tolerance to morphine is a fairly common and normal response to the drug, it should not be ignored. For one, morphine and other opioid medications can be very helpful in highly painful situations. If you overuse opioids and develop too much of a tolerance, they can be rendered ineffective for you and leave you without many options for pain relief. Opioids are typically not effective indefinitely as tolerance almost always develops.
An additional concern of tolerance is that it can lead to dependence and addiction if not addressed properly. Sometimes, people start taking morphine for medical purposes, but they become addicted to the psychological and physical effects of the drug. Other people may start using morphine for recreational purposes from the beginning.
“Opioids, like morphine and heroin, are abused for the euphoric high or exaggerated sense of well-being they produce when taken at high enough doses. This is a particularly dangerous habit as an opioid overdose can cause respiratory failure and death. Whether people are self-medicating pain or trying to experience an intense high, they may accidentally consume too much of the drug and face serious consequences.”
Morphine is widely abused because it is relatively easy to obtain. Doctors willingly prescribe it, and some people get prescriptions from multiple doctors at once. It is also a widely available street drug.
The overprescription of opioids and their recreational availability have contributed to the current opioid epidemic that has swept across the United States. More than 11 million people misused prescription opioids, and more than 130 people died each day from an opioid-related overdose, in 2017.
How to Safely Lower Your Morphine Tolerance
Given the potential for morphine abuse, it is important to address tolerance as soon as you are aware of it. There are steps to be taken to safely lower your tolerance to morphine while avoiding the risk of experiencing any adverse effects. Addressing tolerance should begin with speaking with your doctor. Your doctor can help assess your level of tolerance and may recommend switching medications or gradually reducing use.
Various methods for safely reducing morphine use include:
- Substitution: Doctors can prescribe alternative opioids, such as methadone or buprenorphine, in place of morphine. These drugs are also opioids, but they do not cause cravings or withdrawal symptoms that are commonly seen with morphine abuse. Their use can be gradually reduced over time as the body adjusts to ever-decreasing amounts of opioids in the system.
- Reduced use: Reducing morphine use for even a short time allows your body to readjust. If you only have a tolerance to morphine and not a physical dependence, then you are unlikely to experience uncomfortable and challenging withdrawal symptoms. If using morphine to manage pain, you may need to find an alternative pain medication while you abstain from morphine.
Addiction Treatment Options
Once morphine addiction has set in, formal treatment is necessary. Opioid addiction treatment includes medical detoxification, medication management, and individual and group therapy programs. You can tell if you have developed an addiction and physical dependence by the occurrence of withdrawal symptoms when you attempt to stop using morphine, which includes:
- Muscle aches and pains
- Runny nose and teary eyes
- Sweating and chills
- Stomach cramps
- Nausea and vomiting
- Dilated pupils
The symptoms of opioid withdrawal can be very physically uncomfortable, but they are not likely to be life-threatening. One way to help you manage your discomfort during this phase is to participate in a comprehensive treatment program that includes medically assisted detox. Methadone and buprenorphine can be prescribed to greatly relieve your withdrawal symptoms and make the detox process much less painful. Medications, such as clonidine, may also be prescribed to reduce many of the above withdrawal symptoms, though they will not reduce your cravings for morphine.
Maintenance therapy is another approach to treating morphine addiction. Methadone and buprenorphine can also be prescribed for long-term use (for months or years), as people who had a severe morphine addiction adjust to life without it. These drugs do not produce the euphoric or pain-relieving sensations or the associated cravings that morphine does, but they act the same on the opioid receptors in the brain. This prevents withdrawal symptoms from setting in that often inhibit people from seeking treatment or completing the detox process.
No matter which treatment option you select for morphine addiction, therapy is always needed to reinforce healthy living habits that are free from substance use. Detox alone does little to support long-term sobriety.
Participating in individual and group therapy is essential for gaining an understanding of your behaviors. Through therapy and community support groups, such as Narcotics Anonymous, you can develop the support and life skills needed to stay away from morphine for the long run.