Tramadol is an opioid medication used to relieve moderate to severe pain for a few hours, typically between four and six hours. Although the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) moved the medication onto the scheduled drugs list per the Controlled Substances Act (CSA) in 2014, it is listed as Schedule IV. This means it is not considered very addictive. Most other prescription narcotics are listed as Schedule II, indicating they have a high risk of addiction and abuse.
Still, tramadol can lead to opioid dependence, abuse, and addiction. Long-term abuse of tramadol can have serious side effects, both to the brain and other organ systems.
Damage to the Brain from Abusing Tramadol
Tramadol can cause potential long-term harm to the brain, including an increased risk of mental health disorders, especially depression and anxiety. Often, people with co-occurring disorders begin to abuse substances as a method of self-medicating their mental illness, but drug abuse and addiction also change brain chemistry, making symptoms of these mental health conditions worse.
On a short-term basis, opioid abuse leads to drowsiness and lethargy; long-term, these changes to brain chemistry can damage memory, learning ability, and general cognition. One study showed that people who abused opioids like tramadol struggled with working memory and spatial memory capacity. Although changes to areas of the brain can often be reversed if the person stops abusing these drugs, chronic abuse for many years may make damage to memory, learning, and thinking permanent.
Respiratory depression is a common side effects of opioid consumption, especially when drugs like tramadol are consumed consistently.
Even if the person does not overdose and experience irregular or stopped breathing, the reduction in available oxygen to the brain can lead to brain damage over time.
Harm to Other Body Systems
Abusing opioids, including tramadol, also damages other organ systems in the body.
- Gastrointestinal problems: Changes to appetite, nausea, and vomiting can all lead to weight loss and malnutrition. Chronic constipation, an effect of long-term abuse of opioid drugs like tramadol, can eventually harm the intestines.
- Hyperalgesia: People who consume large doses of opioid drugs like tramadol will actually feel pain from injury or surgery more intensely, which can impair the healing process later.
- Respiratory depression: Not only does reduced oxygen intake harm the brain, it can damage most other organ systems, including the heart, lungs, and kidneys.
- Endocrine system: The presence of large amounts of tramadol can damage the thyroid and change the balance of reproductive hormones. This can cause reduced fertility and sex drive, weight gain, and changes to metabolism and appetite.
Of course, abusing opioid drugs, even milder ones like tramadol, puts the person at risk of developing a physical dependence on, or an addiction to, these substances. Taking opioid painkillers without a doctor’s supervision is dangerous, and abusing these drugs nonmedically is extremely harmful. People who struggle with dependence and addiction are at greater risk for relapse, overdose, and harm to internal organs. They are also more likely to experience financial problems, loss of relationships with loved ones, and decreased self-esteem.
Withdrawal symptoms can be uncomfortable, and they are more likely to occur in people who abuse tramadol in large doses. As a result, relapse is likely without professional help. It is important to get evidence-based treatment from an addiction specialist, for both detox and rehabilitation.