What Are Opioid Medications?
The term opioid is derived from opium, which is an extract from the poppy seed plant. These agents have been available for centuries to relieve pain. Opioids work by binding to opioid receptors that are found predominantly in the central nervous system (brain) and the gastrointestinal tract.
All of the opioids have similar clinical effects that vary from one another in potency, speed on onset, and duration of action. Both short-acting and long-acting formulations are available, as some opioids are used around-the-clock while others are used as needed for breakthrough pain.
Conditions Related to Opioid Medications
Opioids can be used for a number of conditions. These include cancer pain and several forms of chronic pain.
About 9% of the population is believed to misuse opiates over the course of their lifetime, including illegal drugs like heroin and prescribed pain medications such as Oxycontin. Considerable debate exists about the use of opioids for treatment of chronic pain of non-cancer origin. Many physicians feel that opioids can play an important role in the treatment of all types of chronic pain, including non-cancer pain. Others caution against the widespread use of opioids noting problems with tolerance, loss of benefit with time, and escalating usage with decreasing function in many individuals.
The use of opioids makes sense when the benefits outweigh the risks and negative side effects. Benefits are suggested when there is a significant increase in the person’s level of functioning, when there is a reduction or elimination of pain complaints, when there is a more positive hopeful attitude, and when side effects are minimal or controllable. The dilemma with the long-term use of opioids is that while there is a role for opioids in chronic pain it is well-known that prolonged use of opioids may result in tolerance.
One common mistake when treating chronic pain with opioid medications is only using the short-acting types of medication (Percocet, intravenous Morphine, Vicodin,). While these medications are useful for acute pain, the short acting nature of these medications encourages overuse and the development of tolerance. Long-acting opioids may have fewer cognitive side effects and better control of chronic pain.
Because of the extreme care needed when dealing with opioid medications, only consider them under the care of your physician. Follow the directions and do not attempt to take more or stop taking the medication. Opioid medications can be effective if taken properly.