When used in medicine, opioids provide powerful and almost immediate relief of acute pain; but when taken outside of prescribing guidelines, they’ve been known to cause pleasurable feelings, sometimes deemed as euphoria. While this is undoubtedly true for those who take large doses of opioids, particularly illicit drugs like heroin, by injecting intravenously, science shows that these euphoric feelings don’t occur among all users of opioids across the board. In fact, some people who aren’t chemically dependent on opioids tend to feel worse upon taking the drug, according to cognitive neuroscientific research.
How Euphoria Occurs in the Brain
A common explanation of how opioid drugs affect the body states that when ingested, opioids flood the brain’s reward system with feel-good chemicals, sometimes causing a rush of a dizzying high that can linger for minutes, even hours. However, scientists say this notion is largely a myth, which can negatively impact how doctors prescribe the drug and treat opioid addiction.
A person’s mood, surroundings, previous drug history, genetics, and metabolism all impact how someone experiences a dose of opioids, and they shouldn’t be overlooked. Another glaring factor is the brain’s mu-receptors which are wired to the brain’s reward-system pathway and regulate pain in the body. When linked up with signals from ingested amounts of opioids, they can also produce euphoric feelings, which can become addicting as the user begins to crave it and build dependence with repeated use while also building a higher tolerance. When using in larger amounts continuously, users will experience painful withdrawals, urging them to continue taking more of the substance, thus progressing the disease of addiction.
Does Euphoria Drive Addiction?
Researchers say that the euphoric high some experience from opioids isn’t the only factor that spurs addiction. Most previous studies testing the euphoric effects of opioids have been conducted with subjects who were previously or currently addicted to the substance, some only using participants that report enjoying the drug, thus ultimately swaying the findings. Because not everyone experiences these high levels of euphoria, they set out to perform an experiment testing patients who were undergoing minor surgeries.
The experiment by Dr. Leknes showed that most surgery patients didn’t particularly feel a significant rush of euphoria when the opioid remifentanil was administered, and those who did feel slightly “better” only reported a slight reaction. Some patients even reported unpleasant feelings upon receiving a dose of the medication, which was found among subjects who have reported never taking opioids previously. An older study from 2008 shows similar findings, with healthy patients feeling negative effects of opioids administered instead of euphoric highs that are commonly expected.
Studies on these effects are ongoing, but a critical theory has been established: not all people who become addicted to opioids set out to achieve a euphoric feeling, and some may have never experienced it at all. Likely, many people with opioid use disorder had not set out in search of this feeling but rather were overprescribed or given incorrect pain management. These studies will go on to further prove that addiction must be treated as a medical issue rather than a moral one and that those who use these substances were not all initially seeking out euphoric effects.
Recovery Services of New Mexico provides life-saving substance use disorder treatment in an outpatient setting that is both convenient and accessible to communities in need. Specialized medical providers work with each patient to find the right balance of medication-assisted treatment and substance use counseling to increase their chances of attaining long-lasting recovery and freedom from the struggles of addiction. To learn more, message or call a local RSONM facility today.