Opioids are a powerful class of painkillers derived from opium that come from the poppy plant. These drugs, which come in pill or liquid form, are available by prescription and can help relieve your worst pain. The pills may be prescribed after surgery, and sometimes to chronic pain sufferers.

Commonly prescribed opioids include codeine, morphine, and oxycodone. However, the street drug heroin also falls into the opioid category.

These painkillers bind to opioid receptors located in your brain, spinal cord, digestive system, and other organs. Once the drug latches onto the opioid receptor, it sends the message to the rest of your body that you’re not in pain. These drugs effectively diminish your pain by changing the way you perceive it.

Side effects may include drowsiness, constipation, nausea, and vomiting. However, patients also experience a relaxed, euphoric feeling while under the influence of opioids, which has led many people to abuse the drugs.

Opioids trigger euphoric feelings by activating the portion of your brain connected to rewards.

The powerful drug’s ability to make people feel happy has led to rampant drug abuse, and a significant public health threat has emerged over the last few decades. Painkiller overdose death rates have more than tripled in the United States since 1990, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In 2008 alone, more people died from opioid overdoses than heroine and cocaine combined.

To curtail the problem, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), in late 2013, ordered opioid manufacturers to study the impacts for patients taking these drugs long-term. Results from these forthcoming studies will help medical professionals better understand the health implications for patients taking opioids for chronic conditions. The FDA also increased labeling requirements for extended-release and long-acting opioids in an effort to raise awareness of the risks associated with taking them.

New FDA-required opioid warning labels must note that other, less potentially harmful treatments should be considered first.

One already known effect of opioid use involves what’s known as drug tolerance. This happens as your body becomes used to taking the medication, and becomes less reactive to it. As patients develop a tolerance for a medication, they must take ever-higher doses of drugs to relieve their pain.

Users of opioids may become physically dependent, which means the body needs more of the drug for normal functioning. When a person is physically dependent on an opioid, he or she may experience withdrawal symptoms upon stopping use. Withdrawal symptoms may include anxiety, agitation, insomnia, or nausea. Patients stopping long-term opioid use under a doctor’s care can gradually taper the amount of drug taken to avoid symptoms of withdrawal.

Have you ever taken an opioid for pain?

Image by Eric Norris via Flickr

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