Opioids are medications that are often prescribed by a doctor to help relieve pain. They work by reducing the amount of pain signals that your body sends to your brain, and also change the way that your brain responds to pain. You may be prescribed opioids for chronic pain or to help you manage pain following surgeries, dental procedures and injuries. They can also be helpful to those suffering from painful conditions such as cancer.
With talk about the opioid epidemic all over the news, you might find yourself wondering, what are opioids? They can be dangerous when abused, but they can be helpful in treating pain when taken correctly. Because of their addictive nature, it is important to take opioids exactly as your healthcare team prescribes them.
What drugs are classified as opioids?
There are several prescription opioids. All of the drugs listed below are considered to be opioids:
There are a variety of doses of opioids. Doctors prescribe this type of pain medicine based on the type and level of pain that a patient experiences. Most opiates are available in a pill form, but some are administered by injection, by IV or as a patch placed on the skin. Common brand names for opiates include OxyContin, Percocet, Palladone and Vicodin.
Heroin is also an opiate, but it is highly addictive and not prescribed by medical professionals. In 2016, close to 950,000 people in the United States reported using heroin for recreational use and/or for pain management.
How do opioids work?
Opioids attach to opioid receptors, which are proteins located on nerve cells in the brain, spinal cord and other areas in the body. Once the opioids attach to the receptors, they block pain messages that the body sends to the brain. This prevents the brain from recognizing pain, so you feel comfortable.
If you are taking a prescription opioid, you may experience some side effects. Some side effects are milder, including constipation and sleepiness. Other side effects are much more dangerous. Call 911 or your doctor immediately if you experience side effects such as:
- shallow breathing
- loss of consciousness
- slowed heart rate
While opioids are a powerful and effective for pain management, taking opioids for chronic pain long term can lead to dependence and risk of addiction.
What are the symptoms of an opioid addiction?
If you’re taking opioids, it’s crucial to be aware of the signs of addiction. The most obvious warning signs are not being able to stop using the medication and using more than the prescribed amount.
These are the major symptoms of opioid abuse to look out for:
- poor coordination
- shallow or slow breathing rate
- nausea and/or vomiting
- physical agitation
- poor decision making
- abandoning responsibilities
- slurred speech
- sleeping more or less than normal
- mood swings
- euphoria (feeling high)
- lowered motivation
- anxiety attacks
How do people become addicted to opioids?
Opioid use can easily lead to addiction because they create and release endorphins, creating feelings of euphoria. When too many opioids are taken, the brain becomes reliant upon these chemically created endorphins and it stops producing its own.
Additionally, your body can develop a tolerance to the medication. This means that it loses the original effect that it had on your body, causing you to have to take a larger dose of the drug to receive the same effect. If you stop using opioids for chronic pain for a period of time, your tolerance will likely decrease.
Because of this, it’s important to speak with your healthcare team if you stop taking an opioid long term and then later need to start up again. It’s quite possible that the dosage you need might have changed.
Taking prescription drugs only as directed by your primary care doctor or pain specialist can help to minimize the chance of becoming dependent or addicted. This is especially important for chronic pain patients who are prescribed opioids long term.
But remember: both situations are still possible. If you notice a change in how effectively opioid therapy relieves your pain, speak with your doctor right away.
While opioids are often used as a prescription medication, some people use these medications improperly. People who struggle with drug abuse and addiction may take their own prescriptions at higher dosages than they’re prescribed at. Or they may get medications from a friend or relative.
With frequent opioid use, your body develops a tolerance and the supply of opioids often runs out. At this point, people may turn to heroin, which is often cheaper than prescription medications but also far more risky.
What should I do if I think I’m addicted to opioids?
If you think that you might be addicted to opioids, there are several resources available where you can find help. If you are concerned, take these steps to get help:
- Decide to quit. Recognizing your behavior and committing to quitting is the first step in getting better.
- Speak with your doctor. You may be taking opioids for chronic pain, noncancer pain or cancer-related pain, but that doesn’t mean you are immune to addiction. Your doctor or pain specialist can be a great resource in managing your pain and medications and helping you prevent an opioid overdose. She may be able to prescribe a medicine that helps reduce opioid cravings and help you avoid withdrawal symptoms. She may also be able to refer you to a mental health professional or treatment program to help you overcome your addiction.
- Join a support group. There are many organizations that help people overcome addiction. It’s also important to have a strong support group at home. Enlist the help and support of your friends and family. Finally, there are pain support groups that can be very helpful in managing painful conditions.
Learn more about opioid addiction by clicking here:
Are there other pain relief options while taking opioids?
Pain research tells us that opioids may not always control pain when used alone and that taking opioids for chronic pain isn’t always ideal. Your doctor may prescribe a combination of an opioid with another medication, or may prescribe an opioid and recommend non-medication treatments, like physical therapy.
Using opioids as a combination therapy may mean that you’re able to take opioids at a lower dosage while still effectively managing your pain.
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This post was updated in January 2019 with new information and resources.
Learn more about opioids and opioid overdose from the Centers for Disease Control by CDC Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain.