What is an Opioid?

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  • Written By: wiseGEEK Writer
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  • Last Modified Date: 27 September 2019
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The opium poppy, which produces opium and some drugs like morphine and codeine, is the inspiration for the name opioid. This is a group of drugs, divided into classes, depending on manufacture, that are best known for their abilities to relieve pain. The degree to which they are effective may depend on type of drug and individual response, which can vary. Most opioids are known to be addictive and require doctor prescription, or are obtained illegally. Their addictive nature in the medical setting merely means they are used with care and if necessary, withdrawal could be best done by tapering, if dependence has been established.

The way an opioid is classified depends on how it is made. Direct derivatives of morphine are called natural. Those drugs that include some synthetic element are either semi- or fully synthetic. Another group called endogenous opioids are polymers that are created in the body. Some of the most common opioids used include morphine and codeine (natural), hydrocodone, oxycodone and heroin (semi-synthetic), and fentanyl, methadone and tramadol (fully synthetic). Others might be prescribed depending on individual patient.


Opioids have two actions that may help in pain reduction. Within the brain they can distract it somewhat from thinking about pain. The strongest drugs available can cause people to feel distanced, have mild hallucinations or produce a “high.” The other thing that an opioid does is bind to opioid receptors. These receptors would normally send signals to the brain alerting it to pain, but with this binding, they are unable to communicate effectively. Interestingly, an opioid may also inhibit coughing, and explains why these medications are sometimes used for very bad coughs; codeine cough syrup is one well-known formulation.

It is very clear that these drugs have extensive power to create addiction. Some drugs may almost produce this within a few uses, such as heroin. The strong high created may encourage continued usage, resulting in serious addiction to an illegal drug. Other opioids won’t produce dependency at first, but will begin to after extended usage. Signs of dependency include needing more medicine than prescribed, going to dishonest means to get medicine, and feeling extraordinary anxiety as time of a dose draws near. These signs should be honestly discussed with a physician so a weaning off process can begin early.

Many people don’t develop dependency especially if using an opioid for a short time. The drugs have some side effects in common. Many of them can cause nausea or vomiting, particularly when not taken with food. They may also cause constipation and might not be the best pain medicines for stomach conditions. Feeling a little talkative, sleepy, dizzy or sensing altered perception is not uncommon. People should avoid driving while taking opioids.

Administration of opioid drugs takes place in many ways. They may be orally taken in liquid or pill form. Others are injected or administered intravenously. Some opioid skin patches are used for those in chronic pain and to control dosing.


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Since September of 2066, I started on Gabapentin, I was told, for a nerve damage after a total vaginal hysterectomy. Then it escalated to Hydrocodone, morphine, tramadol, clonazepam, steroids, muscle relaxants, Lamictal, ibuprofen and a few more things in between.

It's been 130 days from my natural detox and I stopped the Lamictal 200mg just 12 days ago. I'm still in severe pain. I have muscle aches, burning, tingling, itching, severe headaches, nausea, insomnia, blurred vision, joint pain, face numbness, and even my lips and ears hurt. Is this still withdrawals or neuropathy? I'm 56 years old.

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