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Opioid Brain Damage: 5 Things You Should Know

By Zawn Villines
Opioid addiction can cause long-term brain damage and even death. Here’s what you need to know about opioid brain damage.

According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), prescription opioid overdoses increased by 13.5 percent between 1999 and 2018. By 2018, 128 people died every day from a fatal opioid overdose.

This drug overdose epidemic is just one piece of the opioid abuse puzzle. Opioid brain damage affects many more people, including those who never overdose, or who survive toxic doses of opioids such as heroin and pain medicine. Here are some of the long-term effects opioids can have on the brain. 

Opioid Brain Damage from Overdose

"By far, the most serious, and often permanent damage to the brain that opioids can cause is when an overdose occurs,” Antontello Bonci, MD, executive chairman and founder of GIA Miami tells WebMD Conect to Care. 

According to Bonci, opioids slow breathing. In severe cases, a person may breathe so slowly that they don’t get enough oxygen. More severe overdoses may cause a person to stop breathing entirely, triggering even more serious brain damage. In this case, the effects are similar to a stroke, Bonci explains. Depending on the area of the brain deprived of oxygen, a person may have a wide range of symptoms, including: 

  • Memory loss
  • Vision and hearing loss
  • Loss of balance and coordination 
  • Problems walking or moving 
  • Irritability, depression, or confusion 
  • Trouble with reading and writing 

Hyperalgesia — Increased Sensitivity to Pain

“Long-term use of opioids can cause a condition called opioid-induced hyperalgesia,” says Evan Parks, PhD, a clinical psychologist and author of Chronic Pain Rehabilitation: Active Pain Management to Help You Get Back to the Life You Love.

In healthy people, Parks says, normal stimulation such as light touch or a prick with a needle is not very painful. Opioids make the brain more sensitive to pain, causing some people to perceive even the slightest touch as painful. This can prove especially problematic for people who take opioids for chronic pain

Frontal Lobe Damage 

According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the frontal lobe plays an important role in planning, attention, memory, and executive functioning. 

“Brain studies have shown that chronic opioid exposure can create persistent impairments in the front brain regions, with severe consequences including problems with memory, attention, spatial planning, and executive functions. These problems may last several years after the last use of opioids,” says Bonci. 

Problems With Impulse Control 

“Opioid abuse disrupts the brain circuits involved in impulse control,” explains Lin Sternlicht, LMHC, MA, EdM, an addiction specialist and founder of Family Addiction Specialist. This makes it more difficult to resist the temptation to use opioids. It can also cause serious impulse control problems in other areas of life, including aggression, relationship problems, and problems at work, explains Sternlicht. 

Disrupted Reward System

“Opioids disrupt the brain’s reward system through overstimulation of the pleasure center through neurotransmitters,” says Sternlicht. This makes it difficult for people to get pleasure from their usual sources of enjoyment. This can lead to feelings of depression when you don’t use opioids, further intensifying the addiction and making it difficult or even impossible to enjoy anything else. 

Get Help Now 

Stopping opioids now can reduce your risk of long-term side effects, and help reverse problems such as opioid-related depression and financial problems. Opioid addiction is a treatable disease and WebMD Connect to Care advisors are standing by to help you find the support you need. Get help today!

Treatment & Resources for Opioid Addiction