Synthetic opioids and poppy-derived drugs like opium and heroin block pain. But addiction to opioids can be deadly, and now America has an opioid crisis.
We’ve all seen the headlines about the dangers — often deadly — of opioid overdose and addiction. But what are opioids, and why is this type of drug so problematic?
Is heroin an opioid?
There are two types of opioids. As the National Institute on Drug Abuse explains, opiates such as opium, heroin, morphine, and codeine are opioids derived from substances called alkaloids found in the opium poppy plant. Opioid drugs, including medications like oxycodone and fentanyl, are manufactured from chemical alkaloids.
All opioids work similarly in your body. They attach to opioid-receptor proteins found on nerve cells in the brain, spinal cord, gastrointestinal tract, and other organs, inhibiting the transmission of pain signals. Opioids can also produce feelings of a “high” and, whether they are manufactured from synthetic chemicals or poppy-derived chemicals, tend to be highly addictive.
Opioids have been around for thousands of years. For example, by 3,400 B.C., the Sumerians were making and using the opiate known as opium, most likely for the drug’s ability to produce a feeling of euphoria. Ancient Greek and Roman physicians left records showing they prescribed opium as a powerful pain reliever, gastrointestinal distress treatment, and sleep inducer.
It wasn’t until the early 20th century, when heroin use and abuse skyrocketed in the U.S., that doctors first became aware opiates can be highly addictive. Heroin, in 1923, was made illegal.
As researchers learned how to make more varieties of synthetic opioids, those strong painkillers became increasingly used to treat chronic and severe pain, especially since the l990s. There are now dozens of opioid drugs used in the U.S. and primarily prescribed for pain relief.
June 21, 2023
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA