What Are Opioids, Anyway?

Dr. Katie Nixdorf, Fairview pain management physician, explains what opioids are as related deaths are on the rise in the United States.

Fairview physician Katie Nixdorf, MD explains opioids.

People typically know we have an opioid crisis in the United States, but the understanding of what opioids are is not as well understood. I’m often asked, “What are opioids?”

To answer that: Opioids are substances that relieve pain by attaching to opioid receptors throughout our bodies; the receptors receive stimuli in our nervous system. Some opioids come from natural sources, while others are synthetic (artificial) or semi-synthetic. They can be very addictive, which is a topic we’ll discuss in more detail in a future post.

Opioids are used as prescription pain killers—sometimes referred to as narcotics—and they’re prescribed for sudden (acute) pain, like a broken bone, and for ongoing (chronic) pain, like the pain experienced from some types of cancer.

One danger associated with opioids is that the prescription is often not used in its entirety and the remainder is stored in a household medicine cabinet, making it available to other members of the family who don’t need and may not understand the potential dangers. This commonly happens with teenagers who take the opioid—simply out of curiosity sometimes—but doing so consequently leads to an overdose or abuse. In fact, according the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids and Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), “Two-thirds (66 percent) of teens who report abuse of prescription pain relievers are getting them from friends, family and acquaintances."

Adding to the confusion is the fact that many opioids have multiple names. Some examples of prescription opioids and some of their alternate formal names, are:

  • Tylenol #3, Tylenol #4 (Codeine) 
  • Fentanyl (Actiq, Duragesic, Fentora)
  • Hydrocodone (Hysingla ER, Zohydro ER) 
  • Hydrocodone/Acetaminophen (Lorcet, Lortab, Norco, Vicodin)
  • Hydromorphone (Dilaudid, Exalgo)
  • Meperidine (Demerol)
  • Methadone (Dolophine, Methadose)
  • Morphine (Astramorph, Avinza, Kadian, MS Contin, Ora-Morph SR)
  • Oxycodone (OxyContin, Oxecta, Roxicodone)
  • Oxymorphone (Opana)
  • Oxycodone and Acetaminophen (Percocet, Endocet, Roxicet)
  • Oxycodone and Naloxone (Targiniq ER)
  • Tramadol (Ultram)
  • Tapentadol (Nucynta)
  • Butrenorphine (Butrans, Belbuca)

These medications come in varying forms: pills, capsules, liquids and patches.

While not a prescription drug, heroin is also an opioid and is contributing to the crisis.

According the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than 91 people die every day in the United States due to opioid overdoses; that number represents all opioid-related deaths, including deaths attributed to heroin. On a given day, about 40 people die in the United States related to prescription opioids. Here in Minnesota, the Minnesota Department of Health reports there were 376 opioid-involved deaths in 2016, which was a 12 percent increase compared to 2015. Prescription opioids accounted for 186 of those deaths.

Health care organizations across the country, including Fairview Health Services, are finding ways to address the crisis, which you can read about in this post.

In the next opioid crisis-related blog entry, my colleague, Dr. Greg Amer, will explain why some people become addicted and not others, and what you can do to protect yourself and loved ones from opioid abuse.

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