By now, most everyone’s aware of how addictive opiate drugs can be. Unfortunately, many may not realize how many varieties of drugs fall under the opiate drug classification.
Best known for their ability to relieve pain symptoms, most opiate drugs work by depressing or slowing down brain and central nervous system functions, according to the Institute for Substance Abuse Treatment Evaluation. There is, however, a whole other subcategory of opiates used to treat addiction.
As a group, opiate drugs fall into one of three main categories:
- Natural opiates
- Semisynthetic opiates
Though each category of drugs produces different effects, different drugs within each group may also produce varied effects. Regardless of the category of drug, all opiates act on the same types of cell receptors sites throughout the body.
For people taking opiate drugs for pain management purposes, knowing how these medications work can go a long way towards helping to stop abuse and addiction in its tracks. For people using these drugs for recreational purposes, understanding how opiates can all but hijack brain and body functions over time may be of help in determining whether to seek addiction treatment.
Natural Opiate Drugs
From the opium poppy seed plant comes a variety of natural opiate substances. According to Princeton University, the poppy seed plant houses 50 alkaloid compounds, 25 of which produce pain-relieving effects in the body. While not naturally derived from this plant, most every semisynthetic and synthetic opiate in existence is modeled after one or more of these 50 compounds.
Natural opiates, also known as agonist opiate drugs, all produce pain-relieving effects. Their pain-relieving properties result from their ability to activate endorphin cell receptor sites in the brain, central nervous system and gastrointestinal tract.
In effect, natural opiates intercept or block pain signals sent to the brain by flooding the system with endorphin chemicals. Endorphins and opiates have similar chemical structures, which accounts for why the brain so easily integrates opiates within its chemical system.
Natural opiates include the following:
Semisynthetic Opiate Drugs
Semisynthetic opiates (also agonists), contain natural derivative compounds along with synthetically made agents.
Technically speaking, only poppy seed plant derivatives qualify as actual opiate drugs; however, a comprehensive list of opiates still includes synthetic and semisynthetic drugs, simply because of their similarity in effects.
The synthetic compounds used in the making of semisynthetic opiates actually make these drugs more potent than their natural predecessors, with many being some of the most addictive drugs in the marketplace.
Some of the more commonly used semisynthetic opiates include:
- Oxymorphone – uses thebaine as a natural derivative
- Hydromorphone – uses morphine as a natural derivative
- Oxycodone – uses thebaine as a natural derivative
- Hydrocodone – uses codeine as a natural derivative
Semisynthetic drugs make up the host of prescription pain medications available today. Most semisynthetic drug formulations combine natural opiate derivatives (thebaine, morphine and codeine) with aspirin, acetaminophen and ibuprofen. While these additives produce no opiate-type effects, combining them with opiates works to intensify the pain-relieving effects of semisynthetic drugs.
Synthetic Opiate Drugs
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, an estimated 5.1 million Americans reported abusing prescription pain pills on a regular basis. While legal, these drugs may as well be considered synthetic forms of heroin when abused on a regular basis.
Synthetic opiate drugs (also agonists) contain no natural derivatives whatsoever, but nonetheless produce the same powerful addictive effects and then some. Synthetic formulations work to intensify the effects of natural compounds depending on the intended purpose for any one drug.
Some of the more commonly used synthetic opiates include:
Each of these drugs works as an agonist drug, activating endorphin-producing cell receptor sites and blocking pain sensations. With this release of endorphins comes a few unintended effects, such as total calm and euphoria, the very same effects that drive abusive drug practices.
Opiate Drugs Used in Addiction Treatment
Agonist Treatment Drugs
As opiate addiction treatment medications, synthetic agonists work in much the same way as the other agonist drugs in terms of how they interact with cell receptor sites. These opiate drugs differ in that they produce a controlled effect on endorphin-producing cell receptor sites. As a result, agonist treatments carry a considerably lower risk of abuse and addiction while helping to curb withdrawal and drug cravings effects.
The most commonly used opiates include:
In effect, agonist treatment medications act as replacement therapies in terms of their ability to replace the effects of addictive opiates. These effects essentially wean addicts off addictive opiates.
Antagonist Treatment Drugs
Whereas agonist opiate drugs activate cell receptor sites, antagonist treatment drugs bind to cell sites and block them. Once blocked, addictive agonist-type opiates can’t activate receptor sites, which in turn prevents a person from getting “high” should he or she attempt to use or relapse.
As blocking agents, no endorphin secretions occur so these drugs carry no risk for addiction at all. With continued use, a person’s cravings for addictive opiates gradually subside. These medications work well for someone with a long history of opiate abuse or someone who’s at high risk of relapse.
Antagonist-type opiates commonly used in addiction treatment include:
Partial Agonist Treatment Drugs
Partial agonist opiates both activate and block cell receptor sites. The blocking mechanism works in much the same way as an antagonist drug, while producing a controlled release of endorphin chemicals.
In turn, partial agonist opiate drugs have a twofold purpose:
- Preventing relapse
- Relieving withdrawal and drug cravings effects
Drugs commonly used in this capacity include:
Anyone considering opiates as a pain treatment may want to seriously consider the risks involved with taking opiate drugs on a long-term basis. In general, using opiates longer than three months at a time places a person at considerable risk of abuse and eventual addiction. In terms of recreational use, the risk of addiction is all but a given as these drugs will quickly warp the brain’s ability to function on its own.