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Here is What Taking OxyContin Every Day Does to Your Body

The powerful opioid works as a pain reliever but comes with risks.
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As you likely know, OxyContin has always been in the headlines—first as a potent and effective pain reliever, and then as a reportedly dangerous and addictive substance. Now with the coronavirus pandemic, the opioid is making headlines again, as opioid addiction rises in some states (like Wisconsin)—and just last month, on June 30th, Jonathan Sackler, co-owner of OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma, died. Said his obituary on NBC News: "The company is seeking bankruptcy protection as part of an effort to settle nearly 3,000 lawsuits brought against it by state and local governments that blame the company for sparking the opioid crisis that has killed more than 400,000 Americans since 2000." Yet opioids are still prescribed by some doctors. Here's how OxyContin works on your body if you take it every day, and why it may not be for you.

1

It Reduces Long-Term Pain

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"OxyContin, like other opiates, can bind to receptors in the brain and nervous system causing inhibition or blockage of pain pathways, therefore altering how we sense and respond to pain," says Shadi Vahdat, MD. "Because OxyContin releases its active ingredient oxycodone over about a twelve-hour period," says Dr. Daniel Lanzer, "it is an effective and efficient medication for people who suffer from chronic pain."

2

In Fact, the Brain's Pain Response Changes

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"OxyContin overrides or changes the way your brain responds to certain signals. When it's metabolized in the liver it becomes able to pass easily into your brain," says Dr. Amy Baxter. "It is designed to stimulate the mu-receptor, the part of the brain that reduces pain and causes positive responses to endorphins. It is this positivity that makes it so addictive."

3

It Increases Dopamine Levels

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"Opioid drugs, such as OxyContin, work primarily through their interaction with the mu-opioid receptors, especially in the brain and spinal cord," says Dr. Lanzer. "It elevates levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the brain pathways that control the experience of pleasure."

4

Your Production of Endorphins Slows

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"When you take opioids repeatedly over time, your body slows its production of endorphins," says the Mayo Clinic. "The same dose of opioids stops triggering such a strong flood of good feelings. This is called tolerance. One reason opioid addiction is so common is that people who develop tolerance may feel driven to increase their doses so they can keep feeling good."

5

But You Have a Lower Pain Tolerance

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"Chronic opioids also produce a change in the pain-sensing part of the nervous system which results in a lower pain threshold or opioid-induced hyperalgesia," says Keith Heinzerling, MD, internist and addiction medicine specialist. "While opioids initially reduce pain, in opioid-induced hyperalgesia sensitivity to pain is increased not reduced."

6

It Slows Down Other Bodily Functions

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"It is also known to make one drowsy, create delayed reaction times, constipation, and in the case of overdose, can decrease breathing to the point of death," says Dr. Jason Levine

"In other words, OxyContin impairs what we feel, and we cannot react to what we cannot feel," says Michael Lowenstein, M.D.

7

It Can Be Habit-Forming

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"Similar to other medications in this drug category, OxyContin can be habit-forming and therefore caution should always be taken when using it," says Meghan Marcum, PsyD. "If taken continuously, over time a physical dependence can develop meaning the person may experience problems like withdrawal symptoms if the drug is immediately stopped."

8

You Can Develop Cardiovascular Issues

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"The use of opiates can slow your heart rate and drop your blood pressure and make you feel dizzy and cause you to have fainting like episodes with rapid change in positions," says Medhat Mikhael, M.D.

9

You Can Experience Hypogonadism

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"Chronic use can lead to a decrease in sex hormones that could lead to loss of libido, decrease sex drive, fatigue, anxiety, impotence in men, and menstrual and hormonal irregularities in women," says Dr. Mikhael.

10

Your Body Will Have Higher Carbon Dioxide Levels

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"OxyContin obliterates our natural response to increase carbon dioxide levels. Normally, if we breathe slowly, carbon dioxide rises stimulating our brain stem to stimulate breathing," says Dr. Mikhael. "Unfortunately this gets shifted and that defense mechanism gets affected a great deal."

11

You'll Experience a Period of Energy and Concentration—If Abused

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"Drug abusers remove the candy coating from the pills, crush and cook them with water, then snort or inject the mixture, in essence, taking 12 hours worth of pills in one quick burst," says Dr. Susan Julius. "This release will actually aid concentration and focus and will give the user an energized feeling. For a while."

12

You May Not Experience Trauma Healing

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"Oxycodone is a potent anti-anxiety drug as well as a pain reliever. It will give people with anxiety, especially anxiety related to psychological trauma, a false sense that everything is okay and that they are safe," says Dr. Bennet Davis. "Trauma changes the way one's DNA is read and transcribed and that causes mental and eventually physical health problems. Opioids don't prevent this harm, only the hard work of trauma treatment can. OxyContin allows the effects of trauma to ravage the millions who have experienced psychological trauma and use these medications to feel OK instead of getting the root issue treated."  

13

What About Withdrawal Symptoms?

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"Racing thoughts, elevated heart and respiratory rates, runny nose and eyes, and diarrhea are all common withdrawal symptoms," says Dr. Julius.

14

What to Know Before Taking Any Opioids

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"Anyone who takes opioids is at risk of developing addiction," reports the Mayo Clinic. "Your personal history and the length of time you use opioids play a role, but it's impossible to predict who's vulnerable to eventual dependence on and abuse of these drugs. Legal or illegal, stolen and shared, these drugs are responsible for the majority of overdose deaths in the U.S. today."

"If you're taking opioids and you've developed tolerance, ask your doctor for help," it continues. "There are other, safe choices available to help you make a change and continue feeling well. Don't stop opioid medications without a doctor's help. Quitting these drugs abruptly can cause severe side effects, including pain worse than it was before you started taking opioids. Your doctor can help you taper off opioids slowly and safely."

As for our current pandemic: To get through it at your healthiest, don't miss these Things You Should Never Do During the Coronavirus Pandemic.

Emilia Paluszek
Emilia specializes in human biology and psychology at the University at Albany. Read more
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