Opioids like morphine (or heroin) might make you feel happy in the short-term, but according to a recent study published in the scientific journal Annals of Family Medicine, long-term use of these drugs may increase the risk of developing depression.
The study was led by Jeffrey F. Scherrer, Ph.D., an associate professor at Saint Louis University. To evaluate how long-term prescription opioid use impacted mental health, Scherrer and his co-authors extracted datasets from over 100,000 patients at three different health care institutions — specifically the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), Baylor Scott & White Health (BSWH) and the Henry Ford Health System (HFHS). All patients were new opioid users from the ages 18 to 80 who did not have a diagnosis of depression when they first started taking opioids.
The opioids in the study included codeine, fentanyl, hydrocodone, hydromorphone, levorphanol, meperidine, morphine, oxycodone, oxymorphone and pentazocine. Because many of the people in the study also had chronic pain — a condition associated both opioid use and depression — the researchers controlled for that confound in their statistics.
In the VHA sample, 14.4 percent of the patients who took opioids for more than 90 days developed depression compared to 13.6 percent of patients who took opioids for 31 to 90 days and 11.6 percent of patients who took opioids for less than 30 days.
In the BSWH sample, 19 percent of the patients who took opioids for more than 90 days developed depression compared to 10.6 percent of patients who took opioids for 31 to 90 days and 8.4 percent of patients who took opioids for less than 30 days.
Finally, in the HFHS sample, 19.3 percent of the patients who took opioids for more than 90 days developed depression compared to 14.8 percent of patients who took opioids for 31 to 90 days and 10.7 percent of patients who took opioids for less than 30 days.
What does this mean?
In all patient populations, patients who take opioids for a longer period of time have a higher risk of depression.
“Findings were remarkably consistent across the three health care systems even though the systems have very different patient characteristics and demographics,” Scherrer said in a press release.
What is it about opioids that increases the risk of depression? The researchers aren’t sure. It may have something to do with the way opioids influence the brain’s natural reward circuit, or it may be because chronic opioid use often leads to lower levels of testosterone.
Regardless of the reasons why, the researchers caution against using opioids for chronic pain, a position shared by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
At Sovereign Health of California we understand that the key to managing substance dependence is getting the right treatment. This is why we offer our patients comprehensive treatment that is customized to their unique needs. We apply both technology and counseling to investigate each patient’s neurological state as well as lifestyle issues that could be hampering his or her path to sobriety. For more information, please contact us at our 24/7 helpline.
About the author
Courtney Lopresti, M.S., is a senior staff writer for the Sovereign Health Group where she uses her scientific background to write online blogs and articles for a general audience. At the University of Pittsburgh, where she earned her Master’s in neuroscience, she used functional neuroimaging to study how the human cerebellum contributes to language processing. In her spare time, she writes fiction, reads Oliver Sacks and spends time with her two cats and bird. Courtney is currently located in Minneapolis. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.