A Short History of Opioids

From Ancient Egypt to Modern Medicine

3,000 years ago, texts in ancient Egypt first described the phenomenon of human beings using opium—an extract of a common flower called the poppy—for both inducing a feeling of euphoria and reducing pain. Just like alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, and a great many other naturally derived substances, opium has been used and abused ever since. However, it wasn’t until the 1900s that a chemical compound in opium called morphine was discovered and isolated for use by physicians as a pain medication. Morphine and similar compounds derived from opium, such as codeine, came to be known as opiates.


In the 20st century, experiments with opiates led to the development of synthetic compounds that have similar effects on the body. To distinguish them from natural opiates, these synthetic compounds were called opioids (meaning “opiate-like”). However, due to the similar effects these natural and synthetic compounds have on the body, both opiates and opioids are now referred to under the broader term, opioids.

Opioids stimulate certain cellular structures in the brain, spinal cord, and digestive tract (to name a few) so strongly, that these structures were named for them; we call them opioid receptors. In addition to blocking certain chemicals in the body that cause us to feel pain, the stimulation of our opioid receptors can cause a temporary feeling of euphoria or wellbeing (often called a “high”).

Unfortunately, opioids are extremely addictive, especially the more concentrated and powerful synthetic varieties. Even worse, a concentrated amount of an opioid, even an amount smaller than a grain of sand, can kill a person of any size, weight, age, or degree of health.

As with many other substances, there are opioids that are legally developed and sold, and there are opioids that are not legal in the U.S. and most other countries. These illegal opioids can be difficult to identify, and are even more dangerous than their legally prescribed counterparts.