The Hard Truth Behind
Prescription Opioids History
The word “opioid” refers to any substance derived from the opium poppy that induces changes in someone using it. Opioids have a long history going back thousands of years, with archaeological evidence indicating that they were used for recreational purposes, as medicine, and for religious rituals by a variety of civilizations. In Ancient Greece, Hyppocrates, often known as the “Father of Medicine,” recommended it for medical purposes specifically, citing opioids for their usefulness in inducing sleep and the treatment of pain. Even in these ancient times, prescribing opium was considered controversial, with some early physicians like Avicenna discouraging the use of opium except when absolutely necessary.
By the middle ages, opium had become a staple crop in parts of India, China, and the Middle East. Its use rapidly spread, especially in the form of laudanum, a medicinal tincture composed of opium and alcohol. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the opium trade began in earnest. High demand made selling and managing the distribution of opium a highly profitable enterprise for colonial powers like Britain. In fact, the opium trade even led to wars. Britain smuggled opium into China illegally over a period of decades, despite warnings by the Chinese government, who wanted to curtail the practice due to the ubiquity of opium addiction among their population. By the mid 19th century, this led to two wars often termed “The Opium Wars.”
The development of the hypodermic needle and the development of morphine, an alkaloid derivative of opium, led to opioids’ breakthrough in modern medicine. In 1832, codeine, another derivative of opium, was discovered. Throughout the 19th century and much of the 20th, morphine and codeine were widely believed to be panaceas for all ills. In addition to pain, these supposed cure-alls were prescribed for lung problems, gastrointestinal problems, menstrual pain, nervousness, among other disorders. They were also widely perceived not to be addictive.
Scientists in the early 20th century worked tirelessly to derive forms of opium that would be less addictive. Instead, they created semisynthetic opioids that were significantly more potent — and far more addictive. Heroin emerged as a pain and lung illness treatment in the first decade of the 20th century, with oxycodone and hydrocodone coming shortly thereafter. In 1932, scientists invented the first fully synthetic opioid, meperidine, later marketed as Demerol. Synthetic opioids, which operate via the same chemical compounds as natural opioids, are distinct in that they are developed entirely in the lab via artificial means, and are significantly stronger.
Today over 150 synthetic opioids are known, including fentanyl, which is 50 times stronger than heroin. They are widely prescribed all over the world in the treatment of pain and major illnesses. Despite that, opioids are highly addictive and have wrought irreparable damage on communities, destroying both lives and livelihoods. While illegal opioids like heroin bear the brunt of the blame and associated stigma, the over-prescription of prescription opioids is in large part responsible for the 21st century’s “opioid epidemic.” Not only are many prescription opioids in and of themselves extremely dangerous and life-threatening, like fentanyl and oxycodone, but they often lead physically dependent users to illegal drugs such as heroin.
What Are Prescription Opioids?
Prescription opioids work by acting on opioid receptors in a user’s body. Opioid receptors are naturally occurring in most vertebrates, and humans have them throughout their brain, spinal cord, and digestive system. When prescription opiates bind to opioid receptors, the brain blocks pain being sent to the brain. The result is that any chronic or severe pain a user is experiencing is immediately dulled. For this reason, prescription opioids are known as analgesic drugs, substances used in the treatment of pain.
Prescription Opioids Street Names
While prescription opioids are often abused even by people holding legitimate prescriptions, they are also widely distributed through black market channels. These medications are often known by colloquial street names. While the following list is not exhaustive, these are just a few of the slang names that have emerged during the 21st century’s prescription opiate crisis:
Different Types of Prescription Opioids
There are hundreds of synthetic and semi-synthetic prescription opioids currently available. They are prescribed for many different purposes to meet the needs of individual patients whose cases differ. Some opioids are more potent than others, others last longer in the system, and some are quite short-acting. Naming can be confusing, given that some identical opioid medications are sold under a variety of brand names by different companies. The following survey is an attempt to cover some of the more common prescription opioid painkillers.