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Morphine, heroine and opioids

April 2019

red poppies
The power of the poppy has been known for 5,000 years

It is totally amazing what ancient civilisations discovered so many years ago. Who was the very first person to discover that if you scrape off an unripe poppy seed pod, put little cuts in it, then collect the white gum that oozes out and dry it, you can obtain opium which can be used as a medicine and also for pleasure.

Who on earth did all that? Yet the use of opium is recorded as far back as 3000 BC when the Sumerians called it the joy plant. China was producing opium domestically as early as the 11th century and since then opium and its derivatives have been in common use across the world.

Today the names in use have changed. Opiates used to be the specific word for the powerful compounds that are found in opium. Then scientists found out how to produce similar compounds in a laboratory, so the word opioid came into being to include these. The name was chosen because these compounds act on the opioid receptors which sit on the nerve cells in our body. Today though the word opiate is becoming obsolete and the word opioid tends to cover both natural and chemical compounds with similar properties and effect.

Whatever they are called, these compounds are powerful, psychoactive chemicals that cover a wide family including morphine and heroin plus, surprising to many, codeine. Some products are derived from the poppy; a lot can now be created in laboratories.

In the UK morphine can be prescribed to treat chronic pain or to take over when long term use of milder painkillers is no longer working. It works by blocking the pain signals from travelling along the nerves to the brain and is very effective.

Morphine is only available on prescription, and can come in fast and slow acting tablet form, in granules, in a liquid, suppositories and by injection. It does not come as a skin patch, although similar medicines are available with a patch.

Morphine can be useful for temporary chronic pain relief, or for long term pain reduction in serious illnesses or conditions such as seriously disabling back pain. The doctor will usually start you on a low does that will be increased slowly until the pain is well controlled.

There can be side effects with morphine, including constipation, sickness, tiredness and headaches; it all depends on individual tolerance.

There has been some recent news about addiction to morphine and yes, people can become addicted to morphine. This means that if you suddenly stop taking morphine, it can cause unpleasant withdrawal symptoms such as agitation, anxiety, shaking and sweating. This means that when you do stop taking morphine, it needs to be in a controlled manner authorised by your doctor.

Morphine, like all opioids, is a very strong, very powerful medicine. Because of this, it is termed a controlled medicine and there are strict rules on how it is prescribed and given out. If you collect morphine from your pharmacist, you will need to show proof of identity such as a driving licence or passport.

It is interesting to learn that really the main difference between morphine and heroin is that heroin is three times stronger than morphine and also reaches the brain much more quickly. Heroin is also often combined with other chemicals which can make it very dangerous indeed.

But both can offer extremely powerful effect on the human body; amazing really for a compound originating from such a small pretty little flower.

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