What are opioids?

Opioids, sometimes called narcotics, are medications prescribed by doctors to treat persistent or severe pain. They are used by people with chronic headaches and backaches, by patients recovering from surgery or experiencing severe pain associated with cancer, and by adults and children who have gotten hurt playing sports or who have been seriously injured in falls, auto accidents or other incidents.

How do opioids work?

Opioids attach to proteins called opioid receptors on nerve cells in the brain, spinal cord, gut and other parts of the body. When this happens, the opioids block pain messages sent from the body through the spinal cord to the brain. While they can effectively relieve pain, opioids carry some risks and can be highly addictive. The risk of addiction is especially high when opioids are used to manage chronic pain over a long period of time.

How are opioids taken?

Many opioids are taken in pill form, but they can also be taken as lozenges or lollipops. Some are administered through a vein, by injection or through an IV, and others can be delivered through a patch placed on the skin or with a suppository.

How can you safely use opioids to manage pain?

Opioids can be part of an effective pain management plan, but to help avoid side effects and risk of addiction, you should use them only under a physician’s supervision.
Physician anesthesiologists — medical doctors who specialize in anesthesia, pain management and critical care medicine — have extensive training and experience in prescribing opioid and non-opioid pain medications. If you need help managing pain, a physician anesthesiologist can work with you to make sure your pain is under control while minimizing side effects and the risk of addiction.