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Long-Term Effects of Opioid Use

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Medically Reviewed By: Diana Vo, LMFT

March 29, 2022 (Originally Published)

March 15, 2024 (Last Updated)

Table of Contents

While 130 people dying each day from opioid overdoses in the United States, the long-term effects of opioid use can also be especially damaging. This is why it is so important to seek out an opioid addiction treatment program if you or a loved one needs help.

Not only does opioid addiction impact the end-user and their family, but the CDC reports the economic burden of opioid abuse is $78.5 million.

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Based on 2017 NSDUH data, 1.7 million adults in the US suffered from substance use disorder related to the abuse of prescription opioids.

Opioids are a class of drugs that includes heroin, but when opioids are discussed widely, the primary focus is typically on prescription painkillers in synthetic opioid form.

What are the Long-Term Effects of Opioids?

This class of medication reduces the number of pain signals your body receives from your brain. Opioids alter the way your body responds to pain and are mainly used for these pain-relieving qualities. The euphoric effects delivered, though, mean opioids have a high potential for abuse.

Opioids interact with your brain’s opioid receptors, and also on nerve cells throughout your body. Along with this altered perception of pain, opioids can trigger drowsiness, nausea, and severe confusion. In higher doses, opioids can depress respiration – more on that below.

Widely prescribed to treat chronic pain, opioids are also often administered to treat acute pain following injuries or surgery.

Some of the most common prescription opioid painkillers include:

  • Hydrocodone (Vicodin)
  • Oxycodone (OxyContin)
  • Codeine
  • Morphine

Some other synthetic opioids include:

  • Fentanyl
  • Carfentanil
  • Pethidine
  • Tramadol
  • Methadone

Labeled as one of the most significant synthetic opioid threats to the US fentanyl is 50 times more potent than heroin. Carfentanil is even more powerful. While prescribed to treat the most severe pain, the drug has also trickled onto the black market.

Opioids are safe to use when taken only and exactly as prescribed. We’ll look now at what happens when opioid use turns into abuse and dependence, and ultimately addiction.

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Long-Term Effects of Opioid Addiction

The most disturbing long-term effect of opioid addiction is the development of full-blown opioid use disorder (OUD).

OUD is diagnosed based on the criteria laid down in DSM-5 and is defined as any pattern of problematic opioid use causing substantial impairment or distress.

You’ll be assessed against the following criteria:

  1. You’re taking opioids in larger quantities than intended or for longer than you intended.
  2. You have a persistent desire to quit or control your opioid intake. Attempting to moderate or discontinue use has limited success.
  3. You spend inordinate amounts of time obtaining and using opioids, as well as recovering from opioid abuse.
  4. You experience pronounced cravings for opioids.
  5. You find tolerance building so you need more opioids to achieve the same effect.
  6. Your opioid use leads to neglecting your responsibilities at home, work, or school.
  7. You continue using opioids in spite of persistent interpersonal and social problems.
  8. You find yourself spending less time doing things you used to enjoy.
  9. You are using opioids in situations where it’s dangerous to do so.
  10. If you try quitting or moderating your opioid intake, you experience withdrawal symptoms.
  11. You continue using opioids anyway despite all these negative outcomes.

Depending on the number of the above symptoms presenting over a 12-month period, you’ll be diagnosed with mild, moderate, or severe opioid use disorder.

The sustained use of opioids will almost always lead to physical dependence. When this occurs, tolerance increasingly builds.

Overexposure to opioids over time causes your body to lose the ability to naturally fight discomfort. The neurotransmitters affected by opioids are also responsible for mood and emotional responses. Animal studies have shown opioid dependence leads to permanent changes in the brain.

Effects of Long-Term Opioid Therapy

While opioid painkillers are proven effective when used short-term and precisely as directed, long-term opioid therapy can prompt many adverse outcomes over and beyond opioid use disorder.

Side Effects

This meta-analysis of research shows that long-term opioid abuse can impact core areas including:

  • Central nervous system: Opioid toxicity is a significant concern, particularly in seniors. This can lead to fractures, falls, and respiratory depression.
  • Cardiovascular system: One large study shows an increased risk of cardiovascular events after long-term opioid therapy.
  • Gastrointestinal system: Constipation is a common side effect of prolonged opioid use. This can lead to other adverse outcomes.
  • Endocrine system: Chronic opioid therapy can impact the functioning of your endocrine system leading to disrupted hormone levels.
  • Respiratory system: Long-term opioid therapy is associated with sleep-disordered breathing.
  • Immune system: Some types of opioids, especially fentanyl, have immunosuppressive effects.
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Getting Help for Opioid Addiction at Renaissance

If you have been using opioid painkillers to cope with chronic pain, you should be aware of the risks of continuing to use this medication long-term.

The first and most crucial stage in breaking any addiction is coming to terms with the fact you have a problem and seeking treatment. Here at Renaissance Recovery, we have a variety of robust treatment programs to help you conquer opioid addiction. For most mild addictions, outpatient treatment is sufficient. If you have a moderate or severe opioid use disorder, though, you may benefit from residential rehab.

Our treatment programs combine medication-assisted treatment (MAT) with psychotherapy. We can utilize FDA-approved medications to help ease the symptoms of opioid withdrawal while at the same time minimizing the cravings you get for opioids. These medications are safe to use and can help streamline withdrawal. With psychotherapy like CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) and DBT (dialectical behavior therapy), you’ll dive deep into the root cause of your opioid addiction and formulate healthier coping skills than abusing opioids.

Whether you’re addicted to prescription painkillers, fentanyl, or heroin, we’ll help you reclaim an opioid-free life here at Renaissance Recovery. All you need to do is call the friendly admissions team at 866.330.9449.



At Renaissance Recovery our goal is to provide evidence-based treatment to as many individuals as possible. Give us a call today to verify your insurance coverage or to learn more about paying for addiction treatment.

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Joseph Gilmore has been in the addiction industry for three years with experience working for facilities all across the country. Connect with Joe on LinkedIn.

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