Morphine is one of the most powerful opioid drugs legally available, and doctors have been using it to treat moderate-to-severe pain for more than 200 years.
Morphine is mainly prescribed for post-surgery pain and severe bone and joint pain caused by rheumatoid arthritis. It is also prescribed as a form of palliative care for patients with terminal cancer.
While morphine is undoubtedly medically useful when it comes to effective pain treatment, it also carries a high potential for abuse and addiction. With the exception of a doctor’s prescription, it has been banned in the United States since the early 1900s.
Proof of its addictive power can be demonstrated in a groundbreaking study involving morphine and ants.
According to a report in The New York Times, when ants were given a choice between sugar and morphine, two-thirds of them chose the natural opioid — the first non-mammal species to display drug-seeking behavior, according to researchers who conducted the study.
Despite these laws and general in-hospital restrictions, morphine is still widely used. Almost 4 million morphine prescriptions were written in 2016, according to ClinCalc.com.
Even when people use morphine as prescribed, they can end up dependent on it if they are not extremely careful.
The main focus of the recent opioid epidemic has been illicit drugs like heroin and fentanyl, and when prescription painkillers are brought up, it is typically Vicodin or Oxycontin. But morphine carries just as many dangers as these other opioids and can prove to be just as lethal to those who become addicted to it.
Morphine works in the same way as other opioids. It enters the brain and mimics naturally created opioids to bind with the brain’s opioid receptors. The opioids the body naturally produces are chemicals used to control pain signals within the central nervous system as well as regulate feelings of stress. The opioid receptors are what control the level of opioids produced.
So when morphine binds with these receptors, it stimulates them into overproduction, releasing a flood of opioids with the effect of greatly increased feelings of relaxation and strong blocks around the spinal cord and brainstem that keep pain signals from being able to reach the brain.
Morphine also significantly raises levels of a brain chemical in the limbic system called dopamine. This chemical controls emotion, mood, and how we process motivation and reward.
The increase in dopamine is what creates the euphoric high that occurs when someone takes a large enough dose of morphine. It is also what can kick-start the cycle of addiction, as the brain learns to associate morphine use with the reward of extra dopamine.
Many people will misuse morphine more for pain relief than recreation. However, they become addicted to it because of its effects on the dopamine in their brains. As they grow increasingly tolerant to morphine’s effects, they will have to take more and more of it, increasing the risk of overdose.
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The signs of morphine abuse or addiction can sometimes be difficult to spot, especially if a person has a prescription for it and regularly uses it for that purpose. However, there are still noticeable signs that someone has been abusing morphine outside of their prescribed dose and may potentially be addicted, including:
Long-term side effects of morphine abuse that are more likely to indicate that abuse has escalated to addiction include:
As someone becomes addicted to morphine, or any drugs or alcohol, their routine behaviors will begin to change as getting and using morphine becomes a top priority in their lives. This desire to use morphine edges out other responsibilities, relationships, and hobbies and previous interests. The behaviors associated with this will begin to stack up until their morphine addiction has become apparent.
Some of these behavioral signs include:
If you see these signs of morphine addiction in someone you care about or recognize them in your own behavior, you should seek out professional addiction treatment as soon as possible.
The path to addiction starts with tolerance and grows into dependence. Dependence usually occurs when someone exhibits withdrawal symptoms once a drug leaves their body. It means a person only feels normal when the substance is present in their bodies, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).
Opioids like morphine are infamous for the flu-like withdrawal symptoms they produce once they leave the body. When someone undergoes opioid withdrawal, they will experience early and late-stage symptoms, according to MedlinePlus.gov.
Those early symptoms that are common with all opioids include:
The late symptoms of opioid withdrawal are:
Perhaps the most dangerous thing about morphine is how fast users can build up a tolerance for it, even when taking it as directed.
Despite the potency of the drug, people will quickly become tolerant to its effects and start taking more at once to compensate, also leading to extremely uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms within this same short period of misuse or abuse.
The rapid window for dependence and tolerance leads to an increased risk of overdose as people significantly increase their dosage to ward off withdrawal symptoms and get the same high or pain killing effects as before. People will also mix morphine with alcohol, as well as other depressant drugs like benzodiazepines, and dangerous sedatives.
It is very easy to overdose on morphine, and because it is so powerful in how it depresses the nervous system that when someone does overdose, it can often prove fatal due to a person’s breathing becoming irregular and slowed to the point of asphyxiation. Asphyxia is when someone has become so deprived of oxygen that they can suffocate to death.
Visible symptoms of morphine overdose include:
If someone is exhibiting these symptoms, emergency medical services should be contacted immediately to avoid death and as much permanent brain or organ damage as possible. Typically, morphine overdoses are treated the same way as other opioid overdoses, by administering the opioid overdose reversal drug Narcan.
Finally, while this may make it seem like if you are addicted to morphine that you should cease taking it immediately, it opens you up to potentially-lethal risks equivalent to overdosing. Suddenly stopping all morphine use can cause severe and possibly fatal withdrawal symptoms like a stroke or heart attack.
This is why it is so important to detox in the safe, controlled environment of a professional medical detox treatment center, where a doctor can put you on a tapering schedule to slowly reduce your morphine use without triggering these dangerous withdrawal symptoms.
As previously mentioned, morphine addiction treatment should start with medical detox to flush the morphine from your system in a way that is both safe and effective to achieve sobriety and physical and mental stability.
Once detox has been completed, and you are no longer in any danger from withdrawal symptoms, the next step in morphine addiction treatment is to move to ongoing care in an addiction rehabilitation treatment program. Detox makes you sober, but only addiction recovery treatment can help you stay that way.
A recovery program does this through the use of a treatment plan of different therapies and modalities that can be customized to fit your needs, including addiction education classes, individual or group therapy, 12-step therapy, and more.
These treatments with help give you the tools you need to understand and address the issues behind your addiction as well as the addictive behaviors that fueled it. A recovery program will also teach you how to manage your addiction to maintain sobriety.
If you or someone you care about is struggling with an addiction to morphine, it can feel like you’re trapped with no way out and no one to turn to. But help is available at Pathway to Hope. Our experienced and caring staff will do everything they can to help get you or your loved on the road to recovery and a drug-free future.
Call us for 24/7 access to free and confidential help from our specialists, who can help answer any questions or concerns you might have, verify your insurance, and find a treatment program that’s right for you or your loved one. So don’t wait any longer, call now or contact us online for more information.
ClinCalc.com. (n.d.). Morphine. Retrieved from https://clincalc.com/DrugStats/Drugs/Morphine
Bakalar, N. (2016, September 26). Ants Pick Morphine Over Sugar. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/27/science/ants-pick-morphine-over-sugar.html?searchResultPosition=34
Mandal, A. (2019, February 27). Morphine Uses. Retrieved from https://www.news-medical.net/health/Morphine-Uses.aspx
MedlinePlus.gov. (n.d.). Morphine overdose: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/002502.htm
MedlinePlus.gov. (n.d.). Opiate and opioid withdrawal: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/000949.htm
Narcotic Drugs — Estimated World Requirements for 2018 — Statistics for 2016[PDF File]. (n.d.). International Narcotics Control Board (INCB). Retrieved from https://www.incb.org/documents/Narcotic-Drugs/Technical-Publications/2017/7_Part_2_comments_E.pdf
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (n.d.). 10: Addiction vs dependence. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/teaching-packets/neurobiology-drug-addiction/section-iii-action-heroin-morphine/10-addiction-vs-dependence