How Opioid Receptors Work

How Opioid Receptors Work

Opioids are a group of drugs derived from the opium poppy plant. They include legal prescription drugs, like oxycodone, hydrocodone, and morphine, as well as fentanyl and the illegal drug heroin.

Opioid drugs block pain signals to the brain, but the way these powerful painkillers work makes them highly addictive. What starts as medicinal or recreational drug use can turn into a complex brain disorder called opioid addiction.

To understand why opioid use often leads to misuse, start by learning about opioid receptors: the parts of your brain that control pain and pleasure sensations. Opioid receptors play a key role in opioid abuse disorders — but they can also help you overcome addiction.

Daniel J. Headrick, MD, is an addiction treatment specialist at Headrick Medical Center. Along with our compassionate team, he strives to educate people about the dangers of opioid use and the ways that medication-assisted therapy (MAT) services can support recovery from drug addiction.

How opioid receptors work

Opioid drugs — whether legal or illegal — interact with receptors in your brain that change the way you perceive pain and pleasure. When you use an opioid drug, the chemicals in the drug enter your brain and bind these opioid receptors.

This process blocks pain signals between your body and your brain, which means you no longer feel pain sensations in the same way. Along with reducing pain, many opioids trigger dopamine production. Dopamine increases feelings of pleasure and satisfaction, and it can deliver an addictive “high.”

Using opioid drugs can make you feel:

Within a few hours, these effects wear off. However, your body and your brain may be left wanting more. You’re driven to seek the same high you experienced before, but over time, your body gets used to the drugs as your main source of dopamine.

The more often you use opioid drugs, the higher your risk of dependence. Your opioid tolerance increases with drug use, which means you need to take more to feel the same pleasurable effects.

Long-term opioid use changes the structure and physiology of your brain. It may increase your risk of depression and reduce your ability to handle stress and make decisions. Eventually, you may suffer uncontrollable urges to use opioids, regardless of the risks to your health.

The benefits of medication-assisted therapy

The changes that opioid use causes in your brain can impact your ability to think rationally, and these brain changes aren’t easy to reverse. Overcoming opioid addiction isn’t easy — but it is possible.

Opioid receptors get used to having opioid drugs as a source of dopamine, and recovery involves re-training your brain to function without the drugs. Medication-assisted therapy (MAT) is a method of addiction treatment that uses medication, combined with talk therapy, to help you make positive changes in your life.

Dr. Headrick and our team offer a few different types of medication to support recovery from opioid addiction, including:

These addiction medications work by binding to the same opioid receptors in your brain that opioid drugs do. Taking the medication can either partially or fully block the effects of opioid drugs.

Depending on which medication Dr. Headrick recommends for you, treatment can minimize the symptoms of opioid withdrawal and reduce cravings for opioids. MAT services combine prescription medication with talk therapy to help you change harmful behavior patterns and move into the maintenance phase of recovery.

Ready to learn more about beating opioid addiction with MAT? Schedule a consultation at Headrick Medical Center in San Juan Capistrano, California. Call our office at 949-220-2412 to get started.

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