Opioids are a class of drugs that stimulate the opioid receptors in your brain to block pain signals being sent by your body. Because these receptors are linked to the reward centers in your brain, opioids can also produce a feeling of euphoria.
Some forms of opioids are available legally as medications prescribed by your doctor to treat moderate to severe pain. Other forms of opioids are considered illegal drugs, such as heroin.
Although opioid medications are effective for pain relief, they also come with significant risks. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), taking opioids for as little as four days—even when taken as prescribed by your doctor—increases your risk of addiction. Prescription opioids are especially dangerous when taken more often or in a larger quantity than prescribed by your doctor, or when taken without a doctor’s oversight.
Common Side Effects of Opioids
In addition to pain relief and a feeling of euphoria, opioids can produce the following side effects:
- Slowed breathing, brain activity, and heart rate
- Lack of appetite and thirst
- Decreased sexual desire
Opioid Tolerance, Dependence, and Addiction
If you take opioids for longer than three days, your brain may begin to get used to its opioid receptors being stimulated, which will cause your tolerance to go up. This means you will need a higher dose of the opioid to achieve the same effects. With time, you may become physically dependent on and/or addicted to the opioid, and you will experience withdrawal if you stop taking it. Symptoms of withdrawal, which can begin as soon as four to six hours after the last dose, include:
- Anxiety and agitation
- Muscle weakness and cramps
- Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
- Tremors, chills, and sweating
- Intense cravings
Because opioids can restrict your ability to breathe (slowing or even stopping your breathing), misuse of opioids can lead to a fatal overdose. That risk is higher if you haven’t taken opioids before or if you are taking other medications or drugs that interact with opioids.
Prescription Opioids Can Be a Gateway to Addiction
There are many entry points for opioid misuse and addiction, with prescription opioids continuing to play a significant role. Research shows that nearly 80% of heroin users report they first misused prescription opioids prior to heroin.1
Although everyone who takes prescription opioids is at risk for addiction, that risk is higher for some people than others. Unfortunately, most people don’t know their risk for addiction before an opioid is prescribed to them.
Risk Factors for Opioid Addiction
There are many known factors associated with increased risk for opioid addiction (also called Opioid Use Disorder, or OUD). They include psychological factors, such as childhood trauma or mental health conditions like anxiety or depression; environmental factors, such as growing up or living in high-stress environments; and biological factors, such as family or personal history of substance abuse.2
To account for these risk factors, your physician will review your medical history, conduct a complete clinical evaluation, and may have you complete a risk questionnaire prior to prescribing opioids to you. It’s important to be as honest and thorough as you can when providing information to your doctor, including disclosing past or present drug use and personal or family history of addiction.
Another key factor is your genetics, which research has shown can account for up to 70% of overall risk for OUD.3 However, until recently, physicians and their patients didn’t have a clinically validated way to assess genetic risk for OUD. But thanks to recent scientific advances, genetic risk assessment is now available.
Know Your Genetic Risk for Opioid Use Disorder
When use of prescription opioids to treat acute pain (pain expected to last <30 days) is being considered, it’s important that you and your doctor understand your genetic risk for opioid addiction before a pain prescription is written.
AvertD™ is a clinically validated test that identifies an individual’s genetic risk for developing OUD. The physician-ordered test requires only a simple cheek swab sample and analyzes 15 genetic markers involved in the brain reward pathways associated with addiction to identify if a patient is at high or low genetic risk for OUD. Having this personalized risk information allows you and your doctor to make more informed decisions about whether the use of prescription opioids to treat acute pain is appropriate for you.
Do you know your genetic risk for opioid addiction? To learn more about AvertD, visit avertdtest.com.
1Heroin DrugFacts. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Available online at: https://nida.nih.gov/publications/drugfacts/heroin
2St Marie B. Assessing Patients’ Risk for Opioid Use Disorder. AACN Adv Crit Care. 2019;30(4):343-352. doi:10.4037/aacnacc2019931
3Bevilacqua L, Goldman D. Genes and addictions. Clin Pharmacol Ther. 2009; 85(4):359–361. doi:10.1038/clpt.2009.6