How Opioids Affect Sleep

How Opioids Affect SleepOpioid pain medications are semi-synthetic drugs that replicate the effects of the opiate class of drugs that includes morphine and heroin. Opioid painkillers are classified as controlled substances and are available only with a prescription. In ascending order of potency, these include hydrocodone (Lortab, Vicodin), oxycodone (OxyContin, Percodan, Percocet) and hydromorphone (Dilaudid, Palladone). These are not the only opioids available, but they are the most commonly prescribed.

How Opioids Work

Opioids act directly on the central nervous system (CNS) and work by binding to opiate receptors that exist in the brain, the spinal cord and the gastrointestinal tract. Opioids achieve their painkilling properties by inhibiting the transmission of pain messages in the brain, as well as altering the sensation of pain. Opioids do not actually reduce the causes of pain at the site of an injury; they simply reduce the perception of pain in the brain.

The CNS depressant effects of opioids that cause them to be such effective pain relieving agents also cause other effects to the central nervous system. Drowsiness is a very common side effect of opioids, causing users to “nod off” periodically. However, tolerance to the sedative effects of opioids usually develops relatively quickly.

Recreational Use, Respiratory Depression and Overdose

Respiratory depression is arguably the most serious and dangerous side effect of opioids and is the cause of death in virtually all fatal overdose episodes. Opioid users are vulnerable to a multitude of indirect hazards, including accidents and the results of intravenous injection, such as collapsed veins, infections of the veins or heart and the contraction of HIV/Aids. However, when a person dies from the direct effects of opioid use, it is nearly always from depressed breathing.

Although legitimate medical use of opioids can cause mildly depressed breathing, overdose death while using opioids for medical reasons under a doctor’s care is rare. Usually when fatal overdose occurs, it is because recreational users take dangerously high doses.

The sedative effects of opioids can contribute to the occurrence of overdose death due to depressed breathing. Depressed breathing generally occurs in persons who have passed out or nodded off first. While in this state of heavily sedated sleep, they are vulnerable to depressed breathing, which may resemble sleep apnea, wherein the person simply stops breathing while asleep. In sleep apnea, however, the person usually begins breathing again after a moment or two; in opioid-induced depressed breathing, the person may not resume breathing before he or she has died from asphyxiation.

Opioid Addiction Treatment

There is simply no known drug that is more effective in the treatment of pain than opioids. The World Health Organization has declared that morphine and other opium poppy-based medications are essential in the treatment of severe pain. Opioids are indispensable to modern medical practice.

However, their euphoric and sedating qualities, as well as their addictive potential, make opioids highly liable to abuse by recreational drug users. An epidemic of opioid abuse has led to enormous social, legal and public health problems. Dependence on and addiction to opioids can also result from legitimate medical use and does not necessarily indicate abuse.

Until a better pain medication is developed, it is simply not feasible to eliminate opioids from medical practice. The most effective means of reducing the rates of abuse and addiction are education and treatment. If you or someone you know needs treatment for opioid addiction, please call our toll-free, 24 hour helpline today.