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Dangers of Opioid Overuse

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Opioids are a group of strong pain relieving medicines that are prescribed to ease symptoms of serious illnesses. However, you likely know them more as drugs that cause addiction and a variety of other dangerous effects. Opioids have been cultivated globally and used as medication for thousands of years, dating as far back as the ancient Mesopotamian civilizations. Production in Canada first increased during the 1950s, when doctors began prescribing more liberally and commercial drug companies started widely advertising them. Unfortunately, the dangers of opioid overuse were not realized until the 2000s, but the damage had already been done. To understand the implications and impacts of opioid usage, we must first look at the drugs themselves.

What Are Opioids?

As previously mentioned, opioids are medications that relieve pain and treat other symptoms like cough and diarrhea. Some opioids are derived from the opium plant while others are synthesized artificially from naturally occurring opioids. Some commonly known examples include morphine and fentanyl. Opioids function by traveling through the bloodstream and binding to opioid receptors in the brain that lessen your sense of pain and induce an intense calming effect. Depending on the dosage, they can also create a euphoric feeling, also known as feeling “high”. As usage prolongs, this effect can make it increasingly difficult to withdraw from the medication as the brain becomes addicted to the sensation.

Harmful Effects of Opioids

Prolonged usage of opioids has many detrimental effects to health. Primarily, opioids are depressants, meaning they slow down heart and breath rate. This is very dangerous as dosages that are too high may result in asphyxiation or heart failure. Additionally, those who take opioids for long periods of time may develop resistance to the drug. This often causes them to seek higher doses to achieve the same effect, raising the chances of overdose. There are many complications if opioids are taken during pregnancy, such as raised chances of both maternal and fetal death. Furthermore, the health of the child is put at great risk as usage is linked with higher rates of stillbirth, premature birth, fetal syndromes, and birth defects. Aside from physical symptoms, opioids can have many mental repercussions. A study published by the Psychological Medicine journal indicates that lifetime, non-medical opioid use is associated with increased risk of depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorders (martins). Opioids can also be used as an unhealthy coping mechanism for mental disorders, possibly worsening them. Opioids are only capable of alleviating or numbing the symptoms of the disorder, thus often causing the patient to neglect to seek professional help.

The Opioid Crisis

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The Opioid Crisis in Canada occurred from around 2016-2019, with the number of opioid related deaths peaking in 2019 and decreasing since. The epidemic started due to a mixture of causes: careless prescription of opioids, lack of communication between doctor and patient and thus, lack of knowledge on the addictive nature of opioids, stigma and lack of care regarding mental health, etc. Thousands of individuals per year became addicted to opioid usage through prescriptions or other means. This led to a concerning number of hospitalizations, rehabilitation entries, and deaths. Opioid usage disproportionately affects groups that have long been subject to systemic discrimination from social organizations such as the healthcare, childcare, and education systems. Perhaps one of the most prominent examples of this are Indigenous communities. This is largely due to the history of intergenerational trauma suffered by communities and failure of government to support individuals by providing mental health resources. Government has since made efforts to lessen the effects of the opioid crisis by making certain systematic changes. Prescription of opioids has been confined only to instances where they are truly necessary and where evidence suggests minimal side effects. Their distribution is also controlled more rigorously and many more rehabilitation programs have been instituted across the country to provide comprehensive support to more people.

Treatment for Opioid Addiction

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Treatment for opioid addiction can be approached through a variety of manners, usually including a mixture of medical support and therapy. Certain medications are prescribed to ease withdrawal symptoms, making patients’ recoveries more comfortable and decreasing the urge of relapse. Counseling is also an important part of recovery, and individuals can work with therapists independently to work through the process or as a part of a support group with other affected individuals. Both have been shown to be effective ways to ease the process of full recovery by helping to manage stress, decrease feelings of isolation, minimize negative or discouraging thoughts, and etc. If you or a loved one is suffering from substance abuse, please visit Get help with substance use - or Opioid Addiction | CAMH for support and resources.


Article Author: Cindy Zhao

Article Editor: Stephanie Sahadeo, Sherilyn Wen


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