Opioid alkaloids have been used medicinally for centuries as analgesics, for their antidiarrheal and antitussive properties, and as hypnotics. Opioids were initially derived from the poppy plant (Papaver somniferum) by the ancients of the Mediterranean Basin. Written records of the medicinal uses of opioids date to before the time of Hippocrates (460–377 BC). Paracelsus prescribed opium in a medicinal drink of wine and spices in the 16th century. Sir William Osler, the renowned Canadian physician of the late 1800’s remarked that opium was “God’s own Medicine”. Opioids are considered superb medications by modern physicians, who widely prescribed them still and for the most part without significant adverse consequences.
Yet there is a “dark side” to opioids for those who develop dependence on these drugs (1). Opioids have significant dependence liability because of compelling biphasic central effects, behavioral activation at low doses and sedation at higher doses, accompanied by allostatic neuroadaptation of the CNS, leading to use of rapidly escalating doses. These dynamics may be amplified in persons having altered dopamine receptors in the limbic system, suggesting a possible genetic association (2). Dependent individuals may be unable to stop compulsive self-administration of opioids, in part because of these plastic changes in the brain akin to learning and memory that are highly resistant to modification. Synaptic alterations in neurons of the reward and limbic circuits may irreversibly modify emotions and responses to the environment, thereby permeating the behavioral repertoire of the addict. Accordingly, it may be impossible for most actively dependent individuals to live a fulfilling life simply because so much of their effort becomes devoted to activities necessary to obtain illicit opioids, use them, and recover from their use. Indeed, some individuals who have been dependent on opioids may never be able to return to a normal emotional life without intensive ongoing therapeutic support that allows the acquisition of new learning and more effective coping. The goal of the psychiatrist is to assist the opioid dependent patient to achieve recovery from an opioid-focused life, to help the individual to live a full and balanced life that is no longer fixated on drugs.
Those who addictively use opioids often develop complications, less from opioid use per se than from a life outside the law, a direct consequence of their involvement with illicit drugs. The life and exceptional achievements of Dr. William Halsted, first chief of Surgery at Johns Hopkins Hospital, suggests that chronic opioid use may not necessarily be incompatible with a productive life. (Halsted turned to daily morphine use in a futile attempt to “cure” his cocaine dependence, contracted via self-administration of cocaine during research studies to develop a surgical anesthetic. Halstead had ready, unrestricted access to inexpensive, high-grade morphine, so he
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