Opiates cover a large variety of substances, some legal like pain pills and others illegal such as opium and heroin. When discussing pain pills like Vicodin, OxyContin and Percocet to name a few, those substances are often referred to as “opioids”. When referring to drugs naturally derived from active narcotic components of the opium poppy like heroin and opium they are referred to as “opiates”. These terms have become interchangeable.
Opiates are a medication that are used to relieve pain. They reduce the pain signals reaching the brain. Opiates target the brain’s reward system and flood the brain with dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter present in sectors of the brain that regulate movement, cognition, emotion, motivation and feelings of pleasure. There are certain life sustaining activities that the brain wants to make sure people repeat in life. In order to do so when a person performs one of those activities the brain associates those activities with pleasure or a reward like the release of dopamine. Because drugs of abuse stimulate those same areas it teaches the person to abuse drugs.
Long term use of opiates changes the way the brain works. The nerve cells adapt to having opiates around and when they are taken away the individual will experience a wide range of symptoms often known as withdrawals. Withdrawal symptoms can include agitation, anxiety, muscle aches, insomnia, runny nose, sweating, yawning, abdominal cramping, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and can be very difficult to tolerate.
Prescription opioid medications like Percocet and OxyContin have similar effects to heroin when taken in higher doses or in other ways then prescribed. Abuse of prescription opioids often can lead to heroin abuse.