Opioids are not stimulants. They are a class of medications primarily used for pain relief.

Opioids and stimulants are two different classes of medications that address different needs.

Doctors primarily prescribe opioids to alleviate pain. Opioids act on the nervous system to reduce the intensity of pain signals reaching the brain. Conversely, stimulants increase brain activity, leading to greater alertness and energy.

Both medications require a doctor’s careful consideration when prescribing to avoid potential issues, such as dependence, misuse, and other adverse side effects.

This article explores opioids, their function, and the potential risks of these medications.

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No, opioids are not stimulants.

Opioids are a class of drugs primarily used for their pain-relieving properties. They work by binding to specific receptors in the brain and body to reduce the perception of pain.

Healthcare professionals usually reserve opioids for managing moderate to severe pain and when alternative pain management strategies are not adequate.

Before prescribing opioids, doctors thoroughly assess a person’s pain level, medical history, and potential risk factors for opioid use disorder (OUD). OUD is a condition in which a person has a psychological and physical dependence on opioids.

Some scenarios where opioids may play a role in treatment include:

  • postsurgery care
  • chronic pain conditions
  • cancer-related pain
  • recovering from injury
  • palliative care

Because they can be potent and come with certain risks, opioids are typically prescribed at the lowest effective dose for the shortest duration necessary. Doctors also monitor the person and adjust dosages as required.

In comparison, stimulants are drugs that increase activity in the brain and nervous system, boosting alertness, attention, and energy.

Common stimulants include:

Doctors primarily prescribe stimulants to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and certain sleep disorders. They may also prescribe short courses of the stimulant phentermine to help with weight management.

Opioids work by interacting with the nervous system. They target opioid receptors in the brain, spinal cord, and other areas. These receptors include mu, delta, and kappa.

Each receptor is associated with different effects. Opioid receptors are part of a complex system involved in controlling pain, reward, and certain behaviors.

When opioids bind to these receptors, they initiate a series of responses that lead to the reduction of pain perception. In larger doses, they can lead to feelings of euphoria.

Opioids also promote the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and reward. Dopamine release contributes to feelings of euphoria and well-being. This is also a reason dependence can develop.

Beyond pain relief, opioids affect areas of the brain stem that regulate critical bodily functions, such as breathing and heart rate. By reducing the activity in these areas, opioids can cause slowed breathing. This can pose a significant risk at high doses, such as overdose and death.

Learn more about how opioids affect the brain.

Opioid medications are very effective at managing pain. Because of their potency, their use comes with several risks, including:

Dependence can occur from long-term use or misuse. As the body gets used to a substance, it becomes physically reliant on it to function normally. Abruptly stopping or reducing the dose can trigger withdrawal symptoms, which can range from mild discomfort to severe physical distress.

Physical dependence is not the same as addiction. Addiction involves psychological and behavioral factors.

The ability of opioids to produce feelings of euphoria can lead to misuse, psychological dependence, and addiction. Addiction can occur when a person has a physical and psychological dependence on a substance. Addiction affects a person’s physical and mental health as well as their relationships, work, school, and other aspects of life.

The potential for opioid overdose is another risk of using opioids, particularly when using high doses. Opioids can significantly depress the respiratory system. In overdose situations, this may mean not enough oxygen reaches the brain, which can lead to coma, brain damage, or death.

In light of these risks, doctors carefully balance the benefits and risks of prescribing opioids.

Learn more about OUD.

Below are some commonly asked questions on stimulants and opioids.

What is the definition of a stimulant drug?

A stimulant drug is a substance that increases activity in the central nervous system and body, leading to increased alertness, attention, and energy.

Do stimulants help with pain?

Doctors do not typically prescribe stimulants for pain relief. While stimulants can make people feel more awake and focused, they do not directly reduce pain signals in the body.

However, research is exploring the potential for stimulants to relieve chronic pain, particularly pain that is difficult to manage with standard approaches.

For example, a 2023 case study describes a 43-year-old male who had unmanageable chronic pain without a known cause for 15 years. After receiving a diagnosis of ADHD and starting methylphenidate therapy, he experienced pain relief within 1 month.

Opioids and stimulants have unique effects on the body and brain. Both work on the central nervous system but in different ways. As such, they fulfill different medical needs.

Opioids help reduce a person’s perception of pain by targeting specific receptors in the brain. This leads to sedation and relieves discomfort. Opioids carry some risks, including the potential for dependence, misuse, and overdose.

Conversely, stimulants boost the activity of the central nervous system, making them valuable in treating conditions such as ADHD. Doctors do not typically prescribe stimulants for pain relief.