More Than Just the Risk of Overdose: The Long Term Consequences of Chronic Opioid Use

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By Marcus Fernandez

When it comes to the use of opioids, including illegal drugs like heroin and legal ones like the powerful new class of painkillers, many people focus on the immediate risks, namely the dangers of a deadly overdose. In many ways this intense focus on immediate danger makes a lot of sense – after all tens of thousands of people die every year in just that manner, leaving their families devastated and society at large wondering what went wrong.

Even so, there are other dangers that are just as great as the immediate risk of overdose. For chronic users of opioids in both legal and illegal forms, the risk of overdose is not the only danger. And escaping overdose does not mean that the physical danger has passed.

Indeed, the long-term use of opioids, including prescription-only painkillers and street drugs, can be devastating in its own right. The danger persists even if an overdose never takes place. Here are some of the most difficult long-term consequences of chronic opioid use.

Opioid Pain Syndrome

Opioid medications are powerful painkillers. What is less well known is that the long-term use of these powerful painkillers can actually have the opposite effect and that those who use these drugs chronically can actually become more, not less, sensitive to pain.

There have been a number of scientific studies into this phenomenon, a condition known as opioid pain syndrome. For those suffering from this syndrome, higher pain sensitivity is often the result of long-term use of powerful painkillers. This leaves patients with few options, leaving them scrambling for alternative forms of treatment and harming their lives even more.

Gastrointestinal Issues

The chronic use of opioids in either prescribed or street form can have serious negative repercussions for gastrointestinal health. The risk of frequent and severe constipation rises sharply when opioids are used for long periods of time, and taking over-the-counter remedies to combat these issues can create additional side effects and pose new dangers.

In addition to chronic and uncomfortable constipation, the ongoing use of opioids can also lead to more dangerous gastrointestinal complications, including bowel obstructions. These bowel obstructions may require emergency intervention, including surgery, to resolve, and if left untreated they could even be deadly.

Nighttime Breathing Difficulties

Some cases of sleep apnea and other breathing difficulties may be the result of the chronic use of opioids. Nighttime breathing problems often result when opioids are used for longer than intended or in higher quantities than prescribed. And these issues can have serious consequences.

The lack of restful sleep could result in productivity problems on the job and a possible loss of gainful employment, as well as increasing the risk of car accidents during the morning and evening commutes. Those are not the only dangers, of course, and difficulty breathing at night could even increase the risk of heart attack and sudden death.

Risk of Long-Term Heart Problems

Lastly, the long-term use of prescription opioids and their less legal counterparts increases the risk of heart damage. These risks include sudden heart attacks and a gradual diminishing in the heart’s ability to pump blood around the body.

It is important for those who have been using opioids for a long time to consult with a cardiologist. Tests could reveal damage to the heart muscle, giving patients a chance to turn the situation around.

When used as intended, prescription opioids can help chronic pain patients get their lives back. It can allow those recovering from major operations and invasive dental procedures to do so in a more comfortable manner. But when misused, these same medications can have devastating consequences, triggering not only deadly overdoses but long-term health problems too. If you’ve been taking opioids, it is important to monitor your health and be honest with your doctor. This kind of radical honesty could literally save your life.

If you would like to discuss your legal rights in regards to opioid-related pain and suffering, contact an experienced lawyer at Kinney, Fernandez & Boire with a free consultation