Morphine is a naturally occurring chemical derived from the opium poppy, and it is the primary chemical used to synthesize opioid painkillers. This drug has been available since the 19th century, and its painkilling and addictive properties are well recorded. Like other opioid painkillers, such as oxycodone and hydrocodone, morphine binds to the opioid pain receptors in the brain to reduce pain signals from the body. It is a CNS, or central nervous system, depressant.
This medication is prescribed specifically to treat moderate-to-severe pain that is typically chronic. It is not for short-term pain, such as after surgery, nor is it intended to be used “as needed,” like Percocet or Vicodin. Because this medication is so strong, it can easily become addictive, and the person taking the prescription may become dependent on it. For this reason, it is recommended for people with morphine prescriptions to work closely with their doctor to taper off this medication, if they are able to stop taking it or intend to switch medications.
Morphine is also typically abused as a substitute for heroin, and it is sold both legally and illegally. It is classified as a Schedule II controlled substance, meaning it has useful properties in the medical field, but it is highly regulated because it is also very addictive.
How Does Morphine Abuse and Addiction Begin?
Morphine is a prescription pain medication in the US, but it is not as commonly prescribed as oxycodone or hydrocodone medications, because its intended use is slightly different. Typically, morphine is not used directly in medications, but is processed into synthetic or semi-synthetic painkillers like codeine. This strong opioid is still prescribed to people who need low-cost, palliative relief from cancer or AIDS. It is not prescribed as often to individuals who need relief from chronic pain like arthritis or back pain. The World Health Organization developed a “Three-Step Analgesic Ladder” to inform physicians about palliative practices depending on severity and cause of pain, with morphine and opioid medications recommended only for serious pain. Although there are other medications that better treat chronic pain, morphine is relatively cheap and widely available.
In the United States, morphine prescribing practices make it less of a “gateway drug,” although it is still a common drug of abuse. If people become addicted to a prescription medication like oxycodone, for example, they may steal or illegally purchase morphine after they have become addicted to the intoxication opioids provide. People who have morphine prescriptions may also illegally sell these pills, which is called diversion. Morphine can be sold illegally on the street like heroin, since these drugs have very similar effects. Consumption of this drug continues to grow in the US, through both licit and illicit channels.
Signs, Symptoms, and Dangers of Morphine Abuse
Like other opioid drugs, morphine is addictive because it relieves pain, induces feelings of euphoria and wellbeing, relieves anxiety, and eventually makes the user feel sleepy. Because this is such a potent opioid medication, it is easy to experience an overdose from it.
- Loss of coordination
- Nausea or vomiting
- Loss of appetite
- Mood changes
Morphine overdose symptoms can look like extreme versions of side effects, but also include other, more dangerous symptoms, like:
- Small or pinpoint pupils
- Cold or clammy skin
- Decreased responses
- Passing out, or an inability to wake up
- Increased blood pressure
- Decreased heart rate
- Slow, shallow, or stopped breathing
- Bluish tint around the lips or under the fingernails
- Muscle cramps or spasms
The most dangerous overdose symptom is depressed breathing, in which the breathing slows down or becomes very shallow. Eventually, breathing will stop as morphine continues to affect the central nervous system. Lack of oxygen can cause brain and organ damage, as the organ systems begin to shut down.
People who struggle with an addiction to morphine may also suffer addictions to other opioids, like hydrocodone or heroin. They may mix these drugs, which can compound the effects of all the opioid drugs together, or they might mix morphine with alcohol. Mixing CNS depressants together can increase or enhance the effects of all the drugs involved, and that can lead more rapidly to overdose and death.
Help to Overcome Morphine Addiction
When a person struggles with an addiction to opioid drugs, whether heroin, codeine, oxycodone, or morphine, it is important to get treatment to end dependence on and abuse of these drugs. Addiction can lead to overdose, and opioid drugs are some of the most addictive on the market. According to the Centers for Disease Control, between 1999 and 2014, over 165,000 people died due to an overdose of prescription painkillers. Per a report for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 1.9 million people met the criteria for prescription opioid abuse addiction in 2014 alone. These statistics include morphine.
The first step in treatment for morphine addiction is to end the person’s dependence on the drug. This means they will go through withdrawal. Fortunately, with either inpatient or outpatient treatment, there is help to ease withdrawal symptoms.
Typically, opioid withdrawal symptoms include:
- Muscle aches, pains, and cramps
- Watery eyes and runny nose
- Stomach pain
- Yawning frequently
- Loss of appetite
- Nausea or vomiting
- Blurry vision or dilating pupils
Because morphine is so easy to build a tolerance to or dependence on, an overseeing doctor may prescribe a form of buprenorphine, such as Subutex or Suboxone, to taper the person off physical dependence on opioids. The physician may also prescribe medications to relieve symptoms like nausea or anxiety while the individual detoxes from morphine.
Most importantly, treatment programs, whether inpatient or outpatient, give the person psychological and social support via therapy. This helps the client understand the reasons for the addiction, and find ways to overcome cravings or triggers to use in the future. With support, people are much less likely to relapse and more likely to continue focusing on their sobriety and long-term health.