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Opioids and Pain Relief

What are opioids?
Opioids are commonly prescribed because of their effective analgesic, or pain-relieving, properties. Medications that fall within this class - sometimes referred to as narcotics - include morphine, codeine, and related drugs. Morphine, for example, is often used before or after surgery to alleviate severe pain. Codeine, because it is less efficacious than morphine, is used for milder pain. Other examples of opioids that can be prescribed to alleviate pain include oxycodone (OxyContin), propoxyphene (Darvon), hydrocodone (Vicodin), and hydromorphone (Dilaudid), as well as meperidine (Demerol), which is used less often because of its side effects. In addition to their pain-relieving properties, some of these drugs - for example, codeine and diphenoxylate (Lomotil) - can be used to relieve coughs and diarrhea.

How do opioids affect the brain and body?
Opioids act by attaching to specific proteins called opioid receptors, which are found in the brain, spinal cord, and gastrointestinal tract. When these drugs attach to certain opioid receptors, they can block the transmission of pain messages to the brain. In addition, opioids can produce drowsiness, cause constipation, and, depending upon the amount of drug taken, depress respiration. Opioid drugs also can cause euphoria by affecting the brain regions that mediate what we perceive as pleasure.

What are the possible consequences of opioid use and abuse?
Chronic use of opioids can result in tolerance for the drugs, which means that users must take higher doses to achieve the same initial effects. Long-term use also can lead to physical dependence and addiction - the body adapts to the presence of the drug, and withdrawal symptoms occur if use is reduced or stopped. Symptoms of withdrawal include restlessness, muscle and bone pain, insomnia, diarrhea, vomiting, cold flashes with goose bumps ("cold turkey"), and involuntary leg movements. Finally, taking a large single dose of an opioid could cause severe respiratory depression that can lead to death. Many studies have shown, however, that properly managed medical use of opioid analgesic drugs is safe and rarely causes clinical addiction, defined as compulsive, often uncontrollable use of drugs. Taken exactly as prescribed, opioids can be used to manage pain effectively.

Is it safe to use opioid drugs with other medications?
Opioids are safe to use with other drugs only under a physician's supervision. Typically, they should not be used with other substances that depress the central nervous system, such as alcohol, antihistamines, barbiturates, benzodiazepines, or general anesthetics, as such a combination increases the risk of life-threatening respiratory depression.

Reprinted Courtesy of The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) , a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Updated on: 09/07/12
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