Close up of a red poppy with more poppies and blue flowers in the background.
Opioids are derived from the poppy plant.. MedicalRF.com/Getty Images

Opiates are pain-killing drugs derived from opium, which comes from the poppy plant. Opioids are man-made versions of opiates. However, the term opiate is often used to describe both the natural and synthetic forms. Opiates/opioids carry a risk of addiction.

Also called narcotics, opioids act on certain receptors in the brain and areas of the central nervous system. They dampen the sensation of pain and produce feelings of relaxation by altering action of the brainstem, limbic system, and spinal cord.

Limbic system activity is what causes the "high" that some people get from these medications, which makes them a popular recreational drug. Prolonged use can lead to an increased tolerance, meaning you need more to get the same effect.

Examples of opioids include:

  • Vicodin (which contains hydrocodone)
  • OxyContin (which contains oxycodone)

Many people take opioid medications to control the pain of fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome. However, this use is controversial because of a lack of evidence that they're effective against the pain types involved in these conditions as well as the potential for abuse and addiction. Some doctors refuse to prescribe opioids for these illnesses, while others may require pain contracts or other methods of oversight.

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