There has been a lot of talk in the media lately about U.S. cities suing Big Pharma companies for the damages done by opioids around the country. With the explosion of the epidemic several years ago, it seems that the line between exactly what opioids and opiates are has been blurred.
Many people assume that every pain killer can generally fall under the umbrella term of opioid, however, this is not the case. When listening to the news or reading stories in the media about the opioid epidemic, it is important to understand what the opioid epidemic actually means.
So, what are the differences between opioids and opiates?
First, The History
Many civilizations have been using the powerful medicinal properties from poppy plants to help ease pain and promote sleep for thousands of years. Within the last 100 years or so, the plant was brought to the United States where it became very popular as a sedative, pain killer, and anesthesia.
It really made its debut in the form of medicinal morphine, which became the most commonly used sedative to ease pain from a surgery.
And the rest is history. It became the centralized focal point around racial tension, became the reason for many wars, and has, over the last two decades, become one of the most lucrative prescription medications to ever be sold.
Then, in the late ‘90s, the drug Oxycontin was introduced and sold to the public for the first time, being hailed as a “wonder drug” that caused no negative side effects, could be used post surgery or for chronic pain patients, and was not addictive.
So, What Are Opioids?
Opioids are a class of drugs that were developed in order to bind with the brain’s opioid receptor cells. These are naturally present in the brain and are called the Mu, Gamma, and Kappa Receptor Cells.
Underneath the broad umbrella term of Opioids, there are synthetic and semi-synthetic opioids.
Synthetic opioids are those that have been completely manufactured in a lab, without any naturally derived opiates. Some examples of synthetic opioids are:
On the other hand, there are semi-synthetic opioids. These are drugs that, while manufactured in a lab setting, have some form of the naturally derived opiate plant in their chemical makeup. Some of the drugs that fall under the semi-synthetic category are:
Opioids have, for a long time, been deemed the “safer” alternative to opiates, as they have been manipulated in a lab and can be administered by the individual at home via a simple pill. Many pharmaceutical companies promoted these medications as having fewer addictive qualities and did not present the same nausea, constipation, anxiety, and restless legs that opiates presented.
However, over the last decade, this has been proven to be largely untrue.
So, What are Opiates?
In comparison to opioids, opiates are classed with the naturally occurring substances that are derived from the poppy plant. These are the ones that humans have been using for thousands of years, in some form or another.
When people use the term Opiate, what they are referring to are the chemical substances of:
Although the heroin of today is usually far from pure, the drug itself is created using the naturally derived active chemical, morphine, from the sap of the seeds of poppy plants.
Which Ones are More Addictive?
The answer to this question is, both! Regardless of whether an individual is taking an opiate or an opioid, the side effects and rates of addiction are the same. Just because one is prescribed by a doctor, doesn’t make it any less addictive, and if recent evidence has shown, that can sometimes even exacerbate the problem.
The addiction doesn’t come from a person’s maladjustment to life or inability to differentiate right from wrong, the addiction comes from how the active chemicals in the drug interact with those previously mentioned receptor centers in the brain.
Even if a person who has never tried any drugs, always got straight A’s and never missed a day of work had to undergo a morphine drip or a Vicodin prescription after surgery, there is still a chance that they could become addicted to the medication.
Why are Opioids and Opiates so Addictive?
As previously mentioned, it is all due to how they interact with the brain. These receptor centers play a part in controlling pleasure, pain relief, and motivation. It has been proven that over time, the presence of these drugs actually re-wires how the neural pathways react with the rest of the brain, hence, addiction.
After even the first use, the brain is well aware that the drug reduced pain, created a feeling of relaxation and calm, which gets stored in the memory as a “good thing.” As humans, we are designed to seek what is good and avoid what is dangerous, so when this tiny pill or powder makes us feel good, the brain reworks its own pathways to seek out that good thing again.
Over enough time, these receptor centers in the brain become so reliant on this “good” thing to make it feel better, that it loses a grip on self-control and judgment. This is often what leads to the heartbreaking acts that people struggling with addiction will go through to continue getting high.
Many people debate over whether addiction is a disease or not, but what HAS been proven, is that drug use actually has the power to change the chemical interactions in the brain.
Regardless of whether an individual is taken an opioid prescribed by their surgeon, or if they are taking heroin off the streets, addiction can take place when the user is regularly taking doses.