How Tramadol Is Used to Treat Chronic Pain

Could This Medication Be Right for You?

Doctor holding handful of pills
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Tramadol is a type of opioid painkiller used to treat moderate to severe types of pain. Because it is considered a controlled substance, it is available only through a doctor’s prescription. Tramadol is available in both short-acting and long-acting, or extended release, forms. Whether you are prescribed a short-acting or long-acting form depends on the type and severity of your pain.

How Tramadol Works

Tramadol is an opioid analgesic.

It is the generic name for medications including Ultram, Ultram ER, ConZip, Ryzolt, FusePaq Synapryn and Rybix ODT. It works by changing the way the central nervous system perceives pain in the body. Although its exact mechanisms are not completely understood, it is thought to inhibit the transmission of certain neurotransmitters associated with pain.

In many cases, ​a doctor will start a patient on a low dose of tramadol and gradually increase the amount. Tramadol is safe when administered properly, but if it is used for a long time it can become habit-forming, leading to side effects when an individual stops taking it.

Side Effects of Tramadol

Any type of medication can cause unwanted side effects. Tramadol is no different. If you experience any of the following side effects, contact your doctor immediately:

  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Dizziness
  • Drowsiness
  • Headaches
  • Dry mouth
  • Muscle stiffness or tightness
  • Mood changes, such as anxiety or agitation
  • Itching, sweating and/or chills

Other side effects require immediate medical attention:

  • Seizures
  • Rash or hives
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Difficulty staying awake
  • Hallucinations
  • Decreased pupil size
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Swelling of the face or limbs
  • Decreased awareness or responsiveness
  • Lightheadedness
  • Slow or irregular heartbeat

Tramadol is not recommended for pregnant women, nursing mothers or children under the age of 16. Additionally, tramadol use should be closely monitored if:

  • You have kidney or liver dysfunction.
  • You take certain types of antidepressants.
  • You are elderly.
  • You have a history of head injury.

Tramadol Overdose

When administered properly, tramadol is a completely safe, controlled substance. But like other opioids, it has its risk. Take tramadol only as directed by your doctor. Do not take more of it, do not take it more frequently and do not take it for longer than directed.

If you feel the medication would be more effective at a higher dose, do not increase the dose yourself. Check with your doctor. If you feel like you want to stop taking the medication altogether, do not quit cold turkey. Talk to your doctor so you can quit safely.

Like other opioids, tramadol has a high risk of dependency, and abuse and misuse of the drug can lead to an overdose. It can cause life-threatening respiratory distress when taken in high doses or when combined with other substances.

This can happen if tramadol is combined with other depressants, such as alcohol or sleep aids. It can also happen if you take more than your prescribed dose, or if you crush or chew your medication.

Symptoms of a tramadol overdose include, but are not limited to: difficulty breathing, cold and/or clammy skin, unresponsiveness and small pupils. If you suspect a tramadol overdose, seek emergency medical attention.


Medline Plus. Tramadol. Accessed 10/2/09.

National Institutes of Health. Ryzolt (Tramadol Hydrochloride Extended-Release Tablets). Accessed 10/1/09.

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