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Differences Between Opioid and Non-Opioid Analgesics

Updated on March 28, 2008

There are two primary types of analgesics: narcotic (opioid) and non-narcotic (nonopioid) analgesics.

Non-narcotic analgesics are drugs that have principally analgesic, antipyretic, and anti-inflammatory actions. Acetaminophen is the most commonly used over-the-counter non-narcotic analgesic. Other drugs are not technically part of the analgesic family, but are nonetheless considered analgesics in practice. These include nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as aspirin.

Acetaminophen and NSAIDs can effectively relieve mild to moderate headache and pain of musculoskeletal origin. For moderate to severe pain, they can be used in combination with opioid drugs to enhance pain relief.

Opioids are stronger analgesics that are used when pain signals are too severe to be controlled by non-narcotic analgesics.

The primary difference between opioids and non-opioids is in the way how they produce their analgesic effects. The opioid drugs reduce pain by working on special pain receptors in the nervous system, primarily located in the brain and spinal cord. The non-opioids, on the other hand, work more directly on injured body tissues. The opioids decrease the brain's awareness of the pain, whereas the non-opioids affect some of the chemical changes that normally take place wherever body tissues are injured or damaged.

The long-term use of opioids can lead to tolerance, dose escalation, and physical dependence. Tolerance refers to the fact that the drug loses it's pain relieving effectiveness when used over time. That is, tolerance occurs when you need to take more of the drug in order to obtain the same degree of pain relief. However, tolerance is not considered to be a problem by most pain specialists.

Physical dependence is an automatic consequence of taking opioids over time. Physical dependence is apparent when one abruptly stops taking the drug or reduces the amount taken, which leads to withdrawal reactions.

Non-opioid pain relievers are often preferred for most types of chronic pain, because they do not produce tolerance or physical dependence and are not associated with abuse or addiction. However, they have two serious drawbacks. The first drawback has to do with ceiling effects.

Non-opioids have upper limit of pain relief that can be achieved. Once that upper limit or ceiling is reached, taking additional medication will not provide any further pain relief. Opioids, on the other hand, tend not to have a ceiling. That is, the more you take, the more pain relief you will get. It is for this reason that non-opioids are effective only for mild to moderate pain, whereas opioids are useful for more severe pain intensity.

The second major drawback of the non-opioids is their organ damage potential. Although most non-opioids are quite safe when used for temporary acute pain, problems may arise when people take them over a long period of time. Most are aware of the adverse effects of these drugs on the gastrointestinal system. However, excessive use of the non-opioids can also damage your liver or your kidneys.

Opioids have negative side effects as well. However, it is interesting that many pain specialists now believe that opioids, when used as prescribed, are often safer than the non-opioids. Side effects of the opioids include respiratory depression, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, constipation, sedation, and mental clouding.


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    • profile image

      Mo Shafik 3 months ago

      Important nd most useful terms

      Thank u....

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      Kat533 20 months ago

      Awesome relateable article. Very well written, thank you for the down to earth explination of the differenes between these two medications.

      It might be worth writting about those who are alregic to opioids and the fact that they have a life saving drug like the different n-saids now to chose from for chronic illnesses like Rheumatoid Arthritis/ Fibromyalgia and Sjogren's Disorder.

      Thank you again for the article - I found it very useful.

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      bhavika 3 years ago

      Useful information.thnks