What Are Opioids?

What Are Opioids?

What are opioids? They are morphine and morphine derivatives.
  • Opioid is a word used to describe all natural occurring chemicals related to or having actions similar to those of morphine.
  • Morphine is the main and best known opioid. It is derived from the opium poppy – poppy juice, called Papaver somniferum and Papaver album[1].
  • Other than morphine, there are about 20 other, completely distinct chemical agents with activities like those of morphine in the opium poppy juice.
  • There are also synthetic and semi-synthetic agents with morphine-like activities also referred to as opioids.

Morphine, a pure alkaloid, isolated from the opium poppy in 1803 was so named after the Greek god of dreams, Morpheus, because of its known effect to cause a pleasant feeling of floating outside the body with reduced pain sensation "as if in a dream world".

All other opioids are compared against the strength and effects of morphine.

Names of Common Opioids

What are opioids commonly used? Here are the names of opioids often prescribed and used for both medical and recreational purposes. They include:

  • Codeine
  • Dextromethorphan
  • Dihydrocodeine
  • Diphenoxylate
  • Fentanyl
  • Heroin
  • Hydrocodone
  • Hydromorphone
  • Levorphanol
  • Meperidine
  • Methadone
  • Oxycodone
  • Oxymorphone
  • Paregoric
  • Propoxyphene
  • Buprenorphine
  • Butorphanol
  • Pentazocine
  • Remifentanil
  • Alfentanil
  • Sufentanil

Uses of Opioids

Opioids bind to and stimulate receptors in our brains, bringing about reduced sensation of pain and other effects. Opioids are used for:

  • Pain control
  • Euphoric effect – recreationally
  • Cough suppression
  • Sedation
  • As adjunct in managing certain forms of anxiety

No other group of medications are so effective in the control of severe and chronic pain like opioids. Thus they are widely prescribed for the control of pain from cancer, post-operative pain and other types of pain unresponsive to other pain killers.
Opioids are nevertheless well known to cause physical and psychological dependence leading to addiction and abuse.

Dangers of Opioid Use

  • Opioid use was restricted to very few patients in extreme pain in the past. Nevertheless, in the last 20 years, there has been a progressive increase in the prescription and use of opioids worldwide.
  • According to a report by the American Center for Disease Control, in 2010 alone, the amount of opioids sold in America would be enough to give to every single American adult every four hours for one month [2]!
  • Deaths from use of opioids more than tripled from 4000 in 1999 to 13,800 in 2006 in America, reflecting the increased availability and demand for opioids for both medicinal and recreational use. The same picture is being reported in many other countries.
  • Morphine, Oxycontin, Fentanyl and their cousins provide momentary pain relief by inducing euphoria. They do not actually get to and affect the cause of pain, like anti-inflammatory medications does by altering inflammatory process.
  • Once users get accustomed to the euphoric feelings, they may develop both physical and psychological dependence on this agents, leading to a desire for continuous dosing.
  • It is rather easy to develop tolerance to these medications with prolonged use, also leading to the desire for increased dosing to achieve the same effects the previous smaller dose provided.
  • This increasing dose requirement comes with it, the danger of overdose with opioids with the potential to suppress breathing and consciousness.
  • When blood levels of opioids go down, it also could lead to the development of withdrawal symptoms in those who have developed dependence to them.
  • Symptoms of opioid withdrawal include headaches, nausea, muscle pain, chills, wide pupils, agitation, anxiety, restlessness, depression, diarrhea and hostility.