What Are Opioids, and What Uses Do They Have?


Quick Answer

Opioids, also known as opiates, are narcotic painkillers that act on opioid receptors in the body. Doctors prescribe opioids for both acute and chronic pain management. However, legally regulated opioids such as oxycodone and illegal opiates including heroin are often used recreationally and frequently result in opiate addiction.

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Full Answer

Doctors may prescribe opioids for a range of pain-related conditions, such as pain relief during recovery from surgery. Patients with long-term illnesses such as arthritis, chronic back pain or cancer-related pain often find relief through opioids. Alternatively, opioids may be prescribed for patients who have a high tolerance for less effective pain medications and cannot find relief through non-narcotic means. Recreational drug users may take either Schedule I opioids, such as heroin, and Schedule II medications, such as fentanyl, oxycodone and Demerol, to achieve a high.

Opioids can be ingested in several ways. Most opioid painkillers, such as oxycodone and hydrocodone, are available in pill form. Fentanyl is available as both a patch and a lozenge (sometimes called a lollipop), while Demerol is administered as a shot.

Using opioids for long-term pain management is a controversial topic, according to a 2015 study published in Annals of Internal Medicine. The study found that patients who used narcotic painkillers for chronic pain management were more likely to abuse opioids, suffer a heart attack or overdose on the medication.

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