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Opium: A Long History of Medical Use, Addiction and Abuse

Opium poppies have a significant medical impact in history that dates back to 3,400 B.C. Its medicinal effects was once thought to be magical, and it was a highly cultivated plant around the world. In fact, word of its medicinal properties quickly spread across the globe, and it was sought after by many powerful leaders. Since prehistoric times, the production and cultivation of the flower has largely remained the same. Thanks to selective breeding, the concentrations of some of the more beneficial chemicals have increased naturally. Even now, the opium poppy is still a huge part of modern medicine. Scientists and researchers have learned how to isolate the beneficial chemical properties to create more potent and effective medicine. Although designed for medical needs, these drugs and medications are highly addictive. Opium poppies have led to the creation of opioids and opiates. Opioid abuse has become a global epidemic as a result. It affects all countries. America has its hands full dealing with its own opioid epidemic, as over 2.6 million Americans struggle with an Opioid Use Disorder.

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Looking Back at History

To understand more on how the opioid epidemic came to be, it’s vital to go back in time to see the medicinal usages of opium in the past. Opium usage has not changed much since then.

How Opium Use Spread like Wildfire Across the Globe

The opium poppy, which is a small, green bulb, was first cultivated in 3,400 B.C. in lower Mesopotamia by the Sumerians. They referred to the opium poppy as the “joy plant”. While they had no idea how the opium poppy worked its magic, they enjoyed its effect when ingested. The Sumerians then passed on this plant to the Egyptians, who cultivated their own in large poppy fields. As the Egyptians were traders, they then introduced the poppies to the Phoenicians and the Minoans in 1,300 B.C. These traders then traded the opium flowers across the Mediterranean Sea into Carthage, Europe and Greece. The magical, medicinal effects of the opium flowers were also a hit in those places. By 460 B.C., the usage of this plant changed. More people focused on its medicinal properties rather than its recreational usage. For example, Hippocrates, who is the father of medicine, acknowledged the usefulness and effectiveness of the poppy as a narcotic and styptic. Poppy flowers were used to treat internal diseases, diseases of women and epidemics. The Europeans largely kept the poppy seeds to themselves until 330 B.C. It was then introduced to Persia and India. It wasn’t until 400 A.D. that the opium plant was introduced to the Chinese. At which point, word of the plant’s magical and medicinal properties had basically spread across the globe. Surprisingly, it wasn’t until 1,500 that the Portuguese introduced the world to smoking opium. By smoking opium instead of consuming the seeds, the chemical effects were immediately felt.

The Evolution of Opium into Modern Drugs and Medicine

Opium, as used in modern medicine, first began in the 1st century. It was a star of its own in Dioscorides’ five-volume De Materia Medica, a renowned piece of scientific literature. The book is the origin of where modern medicine stems from. A brief timeline and prescribed usage 5th century: Pseudo-Apuleius uses the poppy flower to induce sleep and relieve pain. 9th century: Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi uses the opium as an anaesthetic, and Abu al-Qasim al-Zahrawi uses the opium as a surgical anaesthetic. 14th century: Serafeddin Sabuncuoglu uses the poppy flower to treat migraines, sciatica, headaches and other painful conditions. 16th century: Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim created the Paracelsus’ laudanum. This concoction, also known as the “Stones of Immortality” contains citrus juice, opium thebaicum, and “quintessence of gold”. This is the first time that the poppy flower was used as a part of a medicinal concoction. The Laudanum was the basis of many popular medicinal patents in the 19th century. 19th century: Friedrich Wilhelm Adam Sertürner isolates morphine from the poppy seeds. Pierre Jean Robiquet isolates codeine. The first semi-synthetic opioid, heroin, was also synthesized at this time. During this period, William Henry Harrison, a U.S. president, is treated with opium. This highlighted opium’s medicinal properties and effects across the country. The Union Army also uses 2.8 million ounces of opium tincture and powder and over 500,000 opium pills during the American Civil War. 20th century: Heroin is marked non-addictive, and used as a substitute for morphine. It is also used as cough medicine for children. Oxycodone is also synthesized, and promoted as an analgesic. By the late 20th century, more and more synthetic opioids are synthesized. This includes methadone and fentanyl. This is also the start of the opioid epidemic in America.

Types of Opium

There’s a lot of confusion on the differences between opium, opiates and opioids. Most of the time, these words are used interchangeable of one another; however, there are minor differences. Opium refers to the opium poppy. Opiates and opioids are both forms of opium, and are strong painkillers. Opiates are chemicals derived from the opium poppy, and are a natural pain remedy. Opioids, on the other hand, are synthetically made. These types of medications have chemical properties similar to opiates.

Types of Opiates

Common types of opiates include:

  • Codeine
  • Heroin
  • Morphine
  • Opium, from the poppy

Types of Opioids

Popular types of opioids include:

  • Fentanyl
  • Hydrocodone
  • Oxycodone
  • Methadone

Addictive Properties of Opium Leading to Abuse

Opium is extremely addictive because it affects the body’s dopamine levels. Dopamine is an important neurotransmitter produced by the body. It is usually associated with motivation and learning. The body releases dopamine as a reward, like after sex or after eating. This creates a sense of euphoria and joy, and encourages people to continue the activity that caused the release. Opium artificially increases dopamine levels in the brain significantly. This causes the brain and the body to associate the misuse of these drugs with positive feelings.

Long-Term Effects of Opium on the Brain

Long-term addicts will find that their opioid or opiate use has lasting effects on their brain. The brain adapts to the constantly elevated dopamine levels, and normalizes it. As a result, it drastically halts natural production. This basically means that the brains of long-term addicts either no longer produce any dopamine or produce very little. Without artificially boosting the dopamine levels in the brain with opioids or opiates, addicts cannot experience pleasure or positive feelings. This reinforces the correlation and bond between addiction and drug use. It can take a long time for the brain to finally start producing dopamine at normal levels again.

Other Side-Effects Worth Mentioning

Long-term opioid or opiate dependence and use can lead to many more side effects. Some other common opium side effects worth mentioning include:

  • Bleeding ulcers
  • Brain damage
  • Coma
  • Kidney damage
  • Liver damage
  • Poor memory
  • Seizure

In worst-case scenarios, it can even lead to death. Keep in mind that overdoses are not uncommon. 33,091 of the 52,404 overdoses that happened in 2015 were caused by opioids. Overdoses can be caused by a mere microgram.

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Classic signs of Opium Addiction

Signs of opium addiction can be hard to see and identify. Many addicts are high functioning and can keep their addiction a secret. Some of the more obvious opium addiction signs include:

  • Experiencing memory problems or loss of memory
  • Feeling restless and agitated all the time
  • Feeling exhausted and lethargic constantly
  • Forging prescription to get opiates or opioids
  • Isolating oneself from family and friends
  • Lying to family and friends about drugs taken
  • No longer finding joy in once pleasurable activities
  • Not fulfilling or keeping up with familial and other responsibilities
  • Obsessing with getting, using or recovering from the drugs
  • Performing poorly at work or at school
  • Robbing pharmacies and medical dispensaries
  • Stealing prescription drugs from friends and family

Those experiencing signs of addiction should seek help immediately. The problem can easily worsen, and spiral out of control.

Opium Withdrawal Symptoms

Both opioids and opiates have notoriously powerful withdrawal symptoms. Although the symptoms aren’t life threatening, they could lead to life-threatening situations. Patients recovering from opiate or opioid abuse experience the following symptoms for a week:

  • Abdominal pain and stomach cramps
  • Anxiety and nervousness
  • Bone and muscle aches
  • Cold sweats
  • Depression and suicidal thoughts
  • Dilated pupils
  • Dizziness
  • Goosebumps and chills
  • Intense cravings
  • Mood swings, especially agitation

The severity of the symptoms will depend on the dosage ingested regularly, the type and purity of the drugs and the length of addiction.

Stages of Opium Withdrawal

Withdrawal timelines vary based on the type of opioid or opiate abused. For opiates, like heroin, initial physical withdrawal symptoms start to appear 6 to 12 hours after the drug has left the body. In general, these symptoms peak at 1 to 3 days, and finally taper off in about a week. The psychological withdrawal symptoms last much longer. Opiate users often experience Post-Acute Withdrawal Syndrome (PAWS), which can last for months. Prescription opioids have a longer half-life, so stages of withdrawal are less intense. Physical withdrawal symptoms tend to emerge 1 to 2 days after last use. These symptoms last approximately 4 to 10 days although some of longer-acting drugs have withdrawal symptoms that last up to 3 weeks.

Best Treatments for Limiting Severity of Withdrawal Symptoms

While counselling and behavioral therapies are essential parts of rehab, the most effective way to reduce the intensity of withdrawal symptoms is to partake in Opioid Replacement Therapy (ORT). ORT involves using replacement drugs that have a similar effect on the brain as opioids and opiates. The drugs block cravings — and essentially withdrawal symptoms — without producing any high. The most common types of medications used in ORT include:

  • Buprenorphine
  • Methadone
  • Naltrexone
  • Suboxone
  • Vivitrol

This type of detox therapy is effective in both inpatient and outpatient treatments. It’s vital that the drugs are used exactly as prescribed because they are essentially opioids. If they are misused, they could lead to a secondary addiction. The drugs may also have unwanted side effects if taken with other drugs or with alcohol. ORT drugs are amazingly effective. Extended-release injectable naltrexone, for example, removes the need for daily doses. It is injected once a month in patients. Studies have found that patients who take this treatment have a 90% abstinent rate even weeks after the treatment has ended. ” column_min_width=”[object Object]” column_spacing=”[object Object]” rule_style=”[object Object]” rule_size=”[object Object]” rule_color=”[object Object]” hide_on_mobile=”[object Object]” class=”[object Object]” id=”[object Object]”][object Object]

Freeing from the Grips of Opium Addiction

Dating far back in time, people have always struggled with balancing the medicinal properties of opium with addiction. While opioids and opiates have many beneficial uses and can treat various ailments and conditions, it is also highly addictive. The withdrawal symptoms are also particularly nasty, so freeing from the grips of addition can be difficult. Thankfully, those who are addicted don’t have to go at sobriety alone. There are plenty of resources out there. Supportive medical care during this time of need can make the entire experience a lot more enjoyable and simple.