Pain medications, which include opioids and opiates, are designed to enhance recovery and reduce short-term and long-term debilitation from pain. However, their abuse has proven a growing problem in the United States, where an estimated 2.1 million people are addicted to and/or abuse the medications.
To understand how prescription painkillers and, in some instances, illegal drugs, work on the system is to understand how addiction is very possible.
What Is an Opiate?
The opium poppy has grown for more than 5,000 years in Southwest Asia. Ancient Sumerians once referred to this plant as the “joy plant,” and it has become the basis for creating natural and synthetic painkilling medications. Chemicals are derived from the opium poppy plant to create the opiates opium and heroin.
Opium plants are produced legally in countries such as India, Turkey and Australia. They are produced illegally in areas of the world such as Burma, Afghanistan, and Colombia where they are trafficked to the United States.
Opiates are non-synthetic drugs that are often regarded as “natural.” Not all are illegal. Examples of opiates that are legal with a prescription include morphine and codeine.
What Is an Opioid?
Opiates stimulate certain receptors in the brain known as opioid receptors. These receptors are also present in the spinal cord and gastrointestinal tract, which includes the stomach. When the opioid receptors are stimulated, pain signals are reduced.
Opioid medications are artificially created in laboratories to stimulate opioid receptors and reduce pain. While doctors used to differentiate between opiates (medications derived from natural substances) and opioids (laboratory-made substances), most are now referred to as simply opioids. This is because they all stimulate the opioid receptors.
Opioid drugs may be completely synthetic or partially synthetic. Examples include:
- hydrocodone (Lortab and Vicodin)
- hydromorphone (Dilaudid)
- oxycodone (OxyContin, Percocet, Percodan)
Why Are Opioids and Opiates So Addictive?
Regardless of their chemical makeup, opioids and opiates can be highly addictive. Opioid receptors affect feelings of pleasure and euphoria in the brain in addition to reducing pain. Some people’s brains may become addicted to the pleasurable sensation that taking an opioid produces. This will stimulate a desire to use the drugs again and more frequently.
For some people who are prescribed the medications, refraining from taking them can cause side effects as well as pain. This can cause a person to continually seek out opioids and/or opiates as a means to reduce withdrawal symptoms. This is known as dependence. Dependence can lead to tolerance, which makes it very difficult for a person to discontinue using the medications.
Regardless of the cause, opioids are highly addictive and should be taken with caution and exactly as instructed. Taking them can lead to a number of adverse health effects as well as risk of overdose. Those who are dependent on the drugs should seek rehabilitation treatment. Overcoming an opioid addiction isn’t easy, but it is possible with the help of caring professionals.