Opioids are medications that are often prescribed 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 drugs that fall under the opioid therapy umbrella. 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: