Opioid Uses

Opioids have been used for thousands of years as a means of providing pain relief. However, there is a myriad of opioid uses, depending on the effect that is mediated by the various opioid receptors.

Some of the clinical uses of opioids include:

Pain relief

Acute pain after surgery - One of the most common indications for opioid use in the clinical settings is acute pain suffered by patients after they have had surgery

Injury or trauma - Pain occurring as a result of injury or trauma is another common indication for the use of opioids, except in the case of head injury where it needs to be used with caution.

Cancer pain - Opoids may also be used to relieve pain caused by cancer, especially in the advanced or end stages of disease. This is called palliative care and is sometimes the only way to manage terminal pain in patients.

Pain arising from disease - Pain as a result of severe, chronic and disabling diseases such as the degenerative condition rheumatoid arthritis may also be managed with opioids. Such chronic pain may lead to severe distress and disability unless the pain is eased with the use of opioids.


Anesthesia involves three main aspects: pain relief or analgesia, loss of memory of the surgery and muscle relaxation to facilitate surgery and manipulation. The analgesic effect of anesthesia is often achieved using opioids. Commonly, synthetic and semisynthetic opioids such as fentanyl, oxymorphone, hydromorphone or natural opioids such as morphine are used in anesthesia.

Cough suppression

A side effect of opioids is that they may act to suppress a cough, so some opioids are used for this purpose, especially in the case of a dry and non-productive cough. Common cough suppressants include codeine, dihydrocodeine, ethylmorphine, hydrocodone, and hydromorphone. However, since these opioids can have other side effects, an opioid derivative called dextromethorphan is often used as a cough suppressant. Notably, dextromethorphan does not have the adverse effect of potentially becoming addictive.

Diarrhea suppression

Another side effect of opioid use is constipation and some opioids may therefore be used to control diarrhea. However, opioids are not usually used to control infective diarrheas due to the risk of serious, life threatening consequences. Drugs such as diphenoxylate and loperamide are useful in treating irritable bowel syndrome and some other organic causes of diarrhea.


Some opioids such as methadone and buprenorphine are used to help wean patients off some of the more potent opioids such as heroin. Methadone is given in low doses after stopping heroin to reduce dependency on the opioid but without causing severe withdrawal symptoms.

Severe anxiety may be treated with opioids such as dihydrocodeine and oxymorphone.

Further Reading

Last Updated: Feb 27, 2019

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Written by

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.


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  1. Verina Tanious Verina Tanious Canada says:

    doing a project on this drug and this site is very helpful

  2. Jeannie Jardine Jeannie Jardine United States says:

    Debra Knapp on KATU news recently reported the"terrible" opiate addiction in the US.  Yes, there is a problem but she did not present the other side of the story, where millions of people with cancer, arthritis, etc. benefit from these drugs and DO NOT abuse them.
        What should be covered as well is the thousands of MDs that overprescribe these drugs inappropriately.  This wasn't mentioned either.  Let's have more a objective, comprehensive discussion of opioid use with ALL sides discussed.  This is objective reporting.

The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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