Opioid is a class of drug that includes the illegal drug heroin, synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, and pain relievers available legally by prescription, such as oxycodone (OxyContin®), hydrocodone (Vicodin®), codeine, morphine, and many others. They are usually 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 in accidents. 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.
But how likely is a patient to become addicted to prescription opioids? And what can we do to get unused opioid medication off the streets? More than 47,000 people in the United States died from opioid overdoses in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And approximately 40 percent of those deaths involved prescription opioids.
Can Suboxone, a medication designed to quell cravings for opioids, be used to prevent addiction? Gary Young, one of the four Northeastern University professors who are trying to tackle this issue.
“We see that it can be very, very effective for treating opioid use disorder, but we don’t really know how it’s being used in practice,” says Young.
Suboxone is intended to help patients with opioid use disorder to manage their cravings. But the team’s early research shows that doctors may also be prescribing it to treat pain, in place of other opioids.
Researchers are working to create a machine learning algorithm to evaluate how likely a patient is to become addicted to opioids. There are other studies trying to determine how best to encourage patients to return their unused opioids.