Know the Risks: Understanding Prescription Drugs

There’s always a moment of pause before you take any new prescription drugs. It’s a time when you weigh the benefits with the side effects to determine whether you really need this pill. It’s the case for any prescriptions, but it’s especially true for addictive substances.

Have you ever had a prescription for Vicodin or OxyContin? These prescriptions, along with other prescription painkillers, have proven to be especially problematic. Vicodin and OxyContin belong to a category of drugs called opioids, and they’re extremely addictive.

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t take the prescription, but you should certainly get the facts before you do.

How opioids work

Opioids are an effective painkiller because they block pain signals. But just like most prescription drugs, they come with more effects than the ones that were initially intended.

Specifically, opioids impact various areas of the body:

            Limbic system

The brain’s limbic system contains what is called a “reward center.” This area is responsible for linking various brain structures that control and regulate pleasure. When we feel pleasure, it’s also this area that motivates us to seek out more of that pleasure. This system is usually activated by things like eating, socializing and sex, but it can also be activated by certain prescription drugs like opioids. This is why people feel pleasure or a sense of euphoria when they take prescription painkillers.


The brainstem is responsible for many of the functions we do without thinking. These include breathing and swallowing. It’s also a conductor of sorts for your brain in that it controls the flow of messages between the brain and the rest of the body. This is where opioids slow breathing and reduce painful sensations.

            Spinal cord

The spinal cord receives sensation messages from the body and sends them to the brain through the spinal cord. This is another area where opioids work to block pain messages.

Did you know that the body produces natural opioids? This is one of the reasons why everyone has a different tolerance for pain. Unfortunately, no one produces enough opioids to combat every type of pain, especially the chronic kind. Opioid painkillers offer a way to supplement your body’s pain-fighting abilities with an opioid boost.

Because we naturally produce opioids, our brains are equipped to handle them with opioid receptors. Our natural opioids bind to the opioid receptors to block pain signals. This is also how prescription opioids work too, but they work on a much larger scale. When you take one of these prescription medications, you’re essentially flooding the brain with opioids.

Why opioids are so addicting

You’ve likely heard about the addiction epidemic that is taking an average of 115 American lives every day. It is a sad reality that many people who become addicted and eventually overdose began by taking prescription drugs.

Now that we know how opioids work in the brain and body, we can better understand how a person becomes addicted.

When the brain gets flooded with opioids, it goes into a crisis management mode of sorts. Although your brain is equipped to handle opioids, it’s not equipped to handle them at such an extreme level. Imagine you hear your favorite song come on the radio, so you turn up the volume a little too loud. What do you do next? Naturally, you turn down the volume.

When your brain encounters something that’s too intense, it does something akin to turning down the volume. It makes adjustments to reduce the amount of opioids it has to process. First, it’ll stop producing as many natural opioids because you’ve clearly got that covered. Next, it’ll remove opioid receptors. So although your brain contains massive amounts of opioids, it’s only allowing so many of them to block pain and produce euphoria.

This creates what we know of as tolerance. The more opioids you take, the more your brain turns down the volume. And you’ll need more and more opioids to produce the same effect.

This is how people become addicted. They need higher doses to relieve the same pain, so they take more and more until their brains rely on the substance to feel any type of pleasure. Eventually, though, a person’s tolerance will increase to the point where they’re not experiencing much pain relief or pleasure. Their brains are hardwired to seek the drugs, and they also need them to avoid intense physical withdrawal symptoms.

Other side effects of opioid prescription drugs

By far, addiction is the most talked about side effect of opioid painkillers. It has caused our current opioid crisis and led to many deaths. But addiction isn’t the only side effect of these prescription pills.

Even if you’re sure you won’t fall victim to addiction, you may experience some of the following common side effects from taking opioid medications:

  • Sedation
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Vomiting
  • Constipation
  • Respiratory depression

If that seems like a manageable list, know that it’s not even exhaustive. There are other less-common side effects that you may experience from taking opioids. These include:

  • Delayed gastric emptying
  • Muscle rigidity
  • Immunologic and hormonal dysfunction
  • Hyperalgesia (increased sensitivity to pain)
  • Myoclonus (sudden involuntary muscle jerking)

Pros and cons of prescription drugs

We’re often lulled into a false sense of security when a doctor prescribes something for a medical condition. We think it can’t be harmful because it’s recommended by a doctor. But the opioid epidemic has shown us that we must be diligent about our own health. It’s up to each and every one of us to ensure we make the best possible choices.

Whether you’re considering addictive medications or any other prescription drugs, it’s important to weigh the pros and cons. Talk to your doctor about the side effects and whether there are any natural alternatives, keeping in mind that natural alternatives may also come with some side effects.

Some side effects may carry more weight than others. Addiction, for example, is a serious side effect that could ruin an otherwise good life. Some people are more prone to addiction than others, so if you have a personal or family history of addiction, you may want to steer clear of taking addictive drugs like prescription painkillers.