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The Basics of Opioids


Pat F. Bass, III, MD, MPH    

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This content is created or selected by the Healthgrades editorial team and is funded by an advertising sponsor. The content is subject to the Healthgrades medical review process for accuracy, balance and objectivity. The content is not edited or otherwise influenced by the advertisers appearing on this page except with the possible suggestion of the broad topic area. For more information, read the HealthGrades advertising policy.


Treatment Options for Painkiller-Induced Constipation

Farshad Ahadian, MD, recommends a variety of treatments for opioid-induced constipation.

Questions about the long-term benefits of opioid pain medications are increasing. It’s important that patients understand the basics before beginning treatment, because while opioids provide effective pain relief in the short term, the risk of side effects and long-term impacts like addiction must be taken into account.

How Opioids Work

Opioids provide pain relief by mimicking pain-relieving chemicals that are produced by our bodies naturally. In order for pain signals to reach your brain (and for you to feel pain), the signal must travel through a receptor. Opioid drugs bind to these receptors in your brain and other parts of the body to block your perception of pain. Thus, the cause of the pain does not go away, but you may feel less pain. A common misconception of patients is that opioids will make them pain free.

Many people feel like opioid-induced constipation is not a serious enough problem to bring to their doctor. These experts explain that there’s a lot you can do to treat OIC—and doing so can prevent complications and greatly improve your quality of life.

Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Review Date: Jul 28, 2016

2017 Healthgrades Operating Company, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Healthgrades Operating Company, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the Healthgrades User Agreement.

Prescribing Opioids

While pills are the most common way patients take opioids, they can also be prescribed in the following formulations:

  • Injection into a muscle

  • Intravenously through a vein

  • Patch applied to skin

  • Suppository placed into the rectum

  • Spray or patch under the tongue

  • Pill or capsule that dissolves in the mouth

  • Nasal inhaler

Different Types of Opioids

The goal of all opioids is pain relief, but they can have different characteristics, such as being short- or long-acting.

Short-acting or immediate-release opioids begin working immediately and will provide peak pain relief in 1 to 2 hours with effects lasting up to 4 hours.

Long-acting or extended-release opioids are released into the body slowly over many hours and the effects may last 12 or 24 hours (some are designed to last days). These formulations provide steady relief over time.

Your doctor will look at your situation and prescribe the regimen that best meets your need. He or she may also prescribe a non-opioid drug in combination with your opioid treatment, or combine a long- and short-acting opioid to meet your pain needs.

Opioid Addiction

In 2014, there were nearly 1.5 times more opioid-related deaths than motor vehicle deaths in the United States. Even when taken as prescribed, people can become addicted to opioids. However, the risks significantly increase when opioids are not taken as directed or are taken in combination with other substances such as alcohol or other drugs with abuse potential.

Everyone has a different risk of addiction and some people are at greater risk than others. If you have a personal or family history of alcoholism or drug abuse, you may have a higher risk of getting addicted to opioids. If you’re concerned about developing an addiction to your opioid medication, talk to your doctor about the best way forward.

When we talk about opioid addiction, it’s important to understand the concepts of opioid tolerance and opioid dependence. Tolerance occurs when chronic users require higher and higher doses over time to achieve the same level of pain relief. While tolerance is not considered addiction, higher doses of opioids are associated with an increased risk of side effects.

Many chronic opioid users develop what we call dependence. That means they experience withdrawal or other negative symptoms if the drug is suddenly stopped. Dependence is a physiological change, rather than the compulsive behavior that defines addiction.

Side Effects of Opioids

All drugs have side effects and opioids are no different. People commonly experience the following when taking opioids:

THIS CONTENT DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. This content is provided for informational purposes and reflects the opinions of the author. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of a qualified healthcare professional regarding your health. If you think you may have a medical emergency, contact your doctor immediately or call 911.

Pat Bass III, MD

Dr. Pat Bass is chief medical information officer and an associate professor of medicine and pediatrics at LSU Health- Shreveport and University Hospital. View his Healthgrades profile >

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Publish Date: Feb 8, 2016

© 2017 Healthgrades Operating Company, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Healthgrades Operating Company, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the Healthgrades User Agreement.

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