Morphine is one of the most commonly used pain relievers for people suffering from moderate or severe pain. It’s also commonly used before surgery. People who develop an addiction to morphine are at risk for severe health consequences. Treatment and support are available to help them recover.
Used as early as the Civil War, morphine is one of the most well-known pain relievers in the world. Doctors prescribe morphine to treat moderate to severe pain. It can also be used preventatively before surgeries and to aid in anesthesia. Extended-release pills containing morphine include Avinza (discontinued), Kadian, MS Contin and Morphabond.
Morphine is an opiate that affects the way the central nervous system responds to pain. Opiates are powerful drugs derived from the opium poppy plant. While medical professionals use the term opioid to describe both natural and synthetic opiates, they most commonly use the word opioid when referring to man-made drugs that are chemically similar to opiates. The illicit drug heroin is derived from morphine.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration classifies morphine as a Schedule II controlled substance. That means it has a medical purpose, but it also has a high potential for abuse and can lead to severe psychological and physical dependence. Drugs that do not have a medical purpose but have a similar likelihood for addiction — such as heroin — are classified in Schedule I.
Doctors usually administer morphine by injection, but it also comes in pill form. Although morphine can lead to physical dependence when used for extended periods of time, people taking the drug to treat pain rarely develop an addiction.
Most people obtain morphine from a physician before surgery or from a pharmacy when a doctor prescribes it to treat pain. However, people addicted to opioids seek morphine illegally. The most common ways include buying morphine online from illicit pharmacies and tricking a doctor into prescribing it for pain that doesn’t exist.
Doctor shopping for opioids became popular when the opioid epidemic began in the 2000s. However, morphine is less commonly prescribed for pain today because other opioids, such as oxycodone and hydromorphone, have increased in popularity.
Unlawful pain clinics called pill mills also grew in popularity in the 2000s. Doctors at pill mills carelessly prescribe painkillers, including morphine, to almost anyone who asks for them. But pill mills have become harder to find because of law enforcement crack downs.
Many people seek morphine from drug dealers, but street morphine is rarely as pure as the drugs prescribed by doctors. Illicit morphine is often mixed with other opioids or substances. Drug traffickers synthesize morphine from sap secreted by the opium poppy and sell the drug illegally. Morphine can also be turned into heroin through chemical reactions.
It’s possible for individuals to create morphine on their own, but the chemistry required to create the drug is complex. In the United States, it’s more difficult to grow and traffic opium than it is to find morphine on the street. A minuscule number of people attempt to create it on their own.
People who abuse morphine are much more likely to develop an addiction than people who take it as prescribed by a doctor. When the body is exposed to morphine for long periods of time, the brain develops a dependence and begins to crave the presence of the drug. When a person dependent on morphine doesn’t consume the drug, the brain responds negatively — a reaction called withdrawal. When morphine treatment ends, doctors will usually taper a patient’s dosage of the drug to prevent severe withdrawal symptoms.
Addiction causes people to continue taking morphine despite its harmful effects. People who are addicted no longer need the drug to treat pain, but they may think they do. Many people addicted to morphine don’t take the drug to treat pain. They take it to avoid withdrawal.
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The illicit drug heroin is converted to morphine in the body when it enters the brain. Morphine acts on the pain and reward systems in the brain. The dangerous side effects of the drug occur because the brain stem, which controls blood pressure and respiration, reacts to opioids. Large doses of morphine can slow or stop a person’s breathing, which can be fatal. Morphine and other opiates stay in the body’s system for multiple days, but the effects of the drug usually wear off within a few hours after last use.
People who abuse morphine are more likely to suffer dangerous side effects of the drug, especially those who take it in high doses or inject it intravenously. The length of time that morphine stays in the body depends on the dosage and method of administration.
In general, morphine remains in saliva and in urine for up to three days. Its effects can be felt for between four and six hours depending on the method of administration. Individuals who take extended-release versions of the pill may feel the effects for more than 12 hours.
Doctors are careful when determining the dosage of morphine to give to a patient because the drug can cause severe side effects in high doses. When taken as prescribed, morphine usually relieves pain, decreases hunger and decreases cough.
Common side effects of morphine include:
The symptoms of prescription drug abuse are much more serious. Excessive doses of morphine can slow breathing to the point of death, but a drug called naloxone can reverse the effects of morphine overdose if it is administered quickly.
Other symptoms of morphine abuse include:
People who abuse morphine may display signs of addiction. They may make risky decisions to get drugs. Their work performance and relationships may suffer as morphine becomes the No. 1 priority in their life. They may switch to other dangerous drugs, such as heroin, if they are unable to obtain morphine.
Recovering from morphine addiction requires treatment, which begins with detox from the drug. Treatment centers provide supervised detox to make the experience as safe and comfortable as possible. Some medications, including methadone and buprenorphine, can ease opioid withdrawal symptoms.
Untreated symptoms of morphine withdrawal include:
Withdrawal is different for everyone, and the severity of symptoms depends on the severity and length of addiction. After morphine detox, clinicians offer clients a variety of behavioral therapies to help them learn how to live without the drug. Clinicians also introduce them to support groups and resources that help them adjust to life without morphine.