Morphine is a potent opioid medication that has been used to treat moderate to severe pain for more than 200 years. Unfortunately, it also has a high potential for both abuse and addiction, and it has been banned in the United States with the exception of a doctor’s prescription since 1914 and is usually limited to in-hospital use.
Even then, people who have been prescribed morphine may not follow the prescribed dosage rules set by their doctor, and can quickly find themselves addicted.
While the current opioid crisis in the United States mostly focuses on illicit opioids like heroin or commercial prescription painkillers such as OxyContin or Vicodin, morphine can be just as dangerous an opioid, and certainly as potentially deadly for those who are addicted.
Like its counterpart opioids, morphine works by entering the brain and activating what is known as opioid receptors, which control the levels of natural opioids produced by the brain. The opioids that your body creates on its own are used to regulate stress and control pain signals in the brain and central nervous system.
Morphine mimics these natural opioids and binds with the brain’s opioid receptors, stimulating them into producing an excess flood of opioids that create strong blocks around the brainstem and spinal cord to keep out pain signals and increase feelings of sedation and relaxation.
Morphine also affects the limbic system, often referred to as the brain’s pleasure center, causing a spike of a feel-good brain chemical called dopamine, which is what causes the euphoric high when taken in large enough doses.
While many people will initially misuse morphine for its pain-relieving effects, the drug’s effect on the brain’s dopamine levels set the wheels in motion for dependence and eventual addiction as the body learns to associate morphine use with the reward of an extra boost of dopamine.
In order to be able to properly spot the signs of a growing addiction to morphine, it is important to understand that morphine dependence is not the same thing as morphine addiction and that someone can be dependent on morphine without necessarily being addicted to it.
Many people who take morphine as prescribed to treat chronic pain become dependent on it, meaning that if they stop they will experience withdrawal symptoms. However, this does not mean that they are compulsive users or experiencing any kind of high, instead mainly experiencing the analgesic effects.
The main behavior to look for when determining whether someone is addicted to not only morphine but also really any potentially addictive substance, is compulsive, uncontrolled use. Once someone is unable to control how often and how much morphine they are taking, and are using it compulsively, then the dependence has become an addiction.
Other potential signs that someone is abusing and may be addicted to morphine, even if they have a prescription for it, include:
There are also several long-term side effects of morphine abuse that may become apparent if you are looking for them, such as:
As someone begins to escalate from misuse to abuse to addiction, their priorities will shift away from responsibilities and relationships with friends or family. As this happens, there are behaviors that will begin to stand out that signal not only morphine addiction but substance use disorders in general as well.
Whether you see these signs of morphine addiction in yourself or in someone you care about, it is critical that you seek professional addiction treatment for yourself or your loved one, starting with medical detoxification.
Part of what makes morphine such a dangerous drug of abuse is that users will very quickly build up a tolerance to it. This leads to a rapid progression of increased dosage and intense withdrawal symptoms within a fairly brief window of abuse. This is why even when morphine use is very closely regulated and taken under medical supervision, some can still end up addicted to it.
Because people become tolerant so fast and will escalate the amount of morphine they take, it is all too easy to accidentally overdose, which is the greatest danger of abusing morphine. Mixing morphine with other depressants such as sedatives, benzodiazepines, or alcohol can have much the same effect, with potentially lethal results. Morphine has extremely potent central nervous system depressant qualities, and in the case of an overdose, can cause slowed breathing to the point of asphyxia and, if not treated soon enough, death.
If you see someone exhibiting these symptoms, it is vital that you contact emergency medical services as soon as possible to avoid any permanent damage or death. Like all opioid overdoses, morphine overdoses are typically treated by administering the overdose reversal drug naloxone, also known by its brand name, Narcan.
While it might seem like the best thing that someone who has become addicted to morphine could do would be just to stop using altogether, this can actually be as dangerous as overdosing. Stopping morphine use cold turkey can trigger extremely severe, even fatal withdrawal symptoms, including a heart attack or stroke.
This is all the more reason to detox under the care and supervision of a medical detox professional in a controlled environment where you can slowly taper down your usage until it is safe to stop using morphine without triggering the more dangerous withdrawal symptoms.
Morphine addiction treatment must start with medical detoxification to safely flush it from your system. When detoxing at a medical treatment center, you will be carefully monitored around-the-clock, avoiding the risk of relapsing midway through the withdrawal process.
Many detox centers will also utilize medication-assisted treatment (MAT) to help ease the symptoms of withdrawal and slowly wean you off of morphine with the help of medical maintenance therapy and a tapering schedule.
Once you have finished the detox process, the next phase of morphine addiction treatment is to enter into an addiction recovery treatment program. Detox is an incredibly important step in recovery from morphine addiction, but it is just one step of many, and if it is not followed up with aftercare treatment, then you have a much higher risk of relapse.
Whether you choose to undergo treatment on an inpatient or outpatient basis, you will be able to learn the skills needed to properly address the root of your addiction and how to successfully manage addictive behaviors and maintain long-term sobriety.
Each person’s treatment plan will be a little different, as it will have been customized to meet their specific needs, and may involve group or individual counseling, addiction education workshops, or more holistic therapies like mindfulness therapy.
International Narcotics Board, & World Health Organization Collaborating Center. (2015). Regional Morphine Consumption (2015). Retrieved from http://www.painpolicy.wisc.edu/sites/default/files/sites/www.painpolicy.wisc.edu/files/amro_morphine.pdf
Mandal, A., M.D. (2013, October 25). Morphine Uses. Retrieved from https://www.news-medical.net/health/Morphine-Uses.aspx
U.S. National Library of Medicine. (2017, January 31). Morphine Overdose. Retrieved from https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/002502.htm