Opioids can drastically lower pain messages being sent by the body to the brain, and then calm the brain's reaction to themwhich in turn helps a patient deal better with the pain emotionally. Our bodies produce opioids naturally; we call them endorphins, and they are often associated with pleasurable things like a runner's high or sexual bliss.
Opioids only help with pain, not its cause
But it's important to remember that opioids only suppress pain. "Opioids don't work on the source of the pain like NSAIDswhich can reduce inflammationdo," says Jeffrey Goldstein, MD, director of the Spine Service at New York University's Hospital for Joint Diseases. "Instead they just mask the pain and help you deal with it."
Unlike NSAIDs, there is no ceiling dose at which opioids stop working. Users can become tolerant and require more for the same effect. (Among addicts, this can lead to phenomenal intake as tolerance builds and the high becomes more elusive.)
Opioids do have side effects
Even when not abused, opioids do have side effects including:
- Respiratory depression (slowed rate of breathing, one of the more serious concerns)
- Dry mouth
- Difficulty urinating