A History of Opioid Use

History of Opioid Use

Opioids have a long history of being used to medicate people who experience pain symptoms due to a disease or illness and are often prescribed to people suffering from intense or chronic pain. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), around 21-29% of people who have been prescribed opioids to manage their pain misuse them, and 9-12% develop a substance use disorder. Public opinion of opioids has switched back and forth over the years between people believing that opioids are a helpful medication for people suffering from chronic pain and believing that opioids are too addictive to be administered as medicine.

Understanding the history of opioid use and addiction may give you some insight into your own addictive habits. Substance use disorder due to the abuse of opioid medications, heroin, or synthetics is a serious illness that must receive appropriate treatment. As more research is conducted on opioids, more treatment options will become available.

Original Use of Opioids

According to “A Brief History of the Opioid Epidemic and Strategies for Pain Medicine,” opioids were originally used as medicine to treat a variety of physical ailments, including diarrhea and toothaches. Opioids have been in use for medical treatment since before the Romans and Greeks. There was no regulation on cocaine or opioids before the 1800s and, as a result, these drugs were commonly prescribed to soothe physical pain. Little research was conducted on the function of pain due to illness or disease, and the addictive nature of opioids was overlooked. In the 1860s, during the Civil War, opioids were used to treat soldiers who were experiencing pain symptoms due to war-related injuries. Many ended up overdosing on the drug.

In 1914, the Harrison Narcotic Control Act was passed due to the sudden popularity of street heroin abuse and iatrogenic morphine. Both physicians and patients began to avoid opioids, and there was a strong negative connotation associated with opioid use.  People who complained about unexplainable pain were thought of as deluded substance abusers.

Even throughout the 1950s, opioids were frowned upon, although cancer patients were prescribed opioids if the patient only had a few weeks to live. The changing of people’s views on prescribing opioids for other medical uses other than cancer began with a conversation about treatment for chronic pain. In the 1970s and 1980s, studies were published arguing that chronic pain should be treated and opioids might be the solution.

The Opioid Crisis

By the 1990s, people’s feelings about opioid use were severely changing. In 1995, the American Pain Society campaign fought for standardized treatment of pain symptoms. Opioids started to become more available, and the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) even issued a statement assuring that physicians who prescribe opiate medicine would receive less scrutiny. Eventually, it was thought of as inhumane for a doctor to refuse to prescribe opioids to someone experiencing chronic or intense pain. It also didn’t help that physicians lived in fear that they would receive less federal funding if they didn’t comply with The Joint Commission’s support of opioid prescriptions.

According to the CDC, the opioid epidemic began in 1999 with a rise of heroin overdoses in 2010 and a rise of synthetic opioid overdoses in 2013. When OxyContin (oxycodone) was put on the market, it was believed that it would be less addictive than other opioid medications. As a result, between 1997 and 2002, opioid prescriptions grew from 670,000 to 6.2 million. Pharmaceutical companies are blamed for the rise in popularity of opioid medications during this time. Specifically, Purdue Pharma pled guilty in 2007 to the false advertisement of OxyContin. As such, opioid prescriptions for chronic pain caused many people to become addicted to pain medication but also forced those addicted but unable to acquire more prescriptions to look for other types of illicit opiate drugs, such as heroin or fentanyl.

Current Opioid Stats

It wasn’t until 2017 that the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency and came up with a five-point plan to combat it. In 2016, opioid overdoses accounted for over 42,000 deaths, and around 40% of those deaths were due to prescription opioids. The five-point plan of the HHS includes:

  1. Improving access to recovery services and treatment
  2. Promoting the use of overdose-reversing drugs
  3. Increasing our understanding of the opioid crisis through public health surveillance
  4. Providing support for research on pain and addiction
  5. Advancing better practices for pain management

According to the CDC, opioid-involved deaths increased by more than 6% from 2018 to 2019. While death rates involving opioids and heroin decreased, deaths involving synthetic opioids increased by over 15%. Opioid deaths haven’t been as high as they were in the early 2000s, but there is still a lot of progress that needs to be made and research to be conducted to prevent opioid prescription addiction.

Addiction to any type of opioid, including prescription drugs, heroin, or synthetics, can lead to overdose. While prescription opioid medications are supposed to help with pain management, many people who were legally prescribed the medication become quickly addicted. It’s important to understand the dangers of opioid addiction and what opioids could do to your mind and body.


At Shoreline Recovery Center, we provide treatment for opioid addiction using psychotherapy and Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT). We provide a judgment-free environment where you can work on managing your substance use disorder and connect with your peers in order to create a supportive community that you can rely on post-treatment. Our professionals are dedicated to making a treatment plan that will suit your specific needs and help you be successful in achieving your recovery goals. If you or a loved one is struggling with opiate addiction, please call (866) 278-8495 to learn more about the programs that we offer.

Related Posts

How to celebrate sobriety

How to Celebrate Sobriety?

Adjusting your lifestyle to one that does not include drugs and alcohol can be extraordinarily challenging. Recognizing and celebrating a recovering addict’s

Do trauma triggers ever go away?

Do trauma triggers ever go away?

Trauma triggers are all around us; the possibility of us being triggered due to something in our environment is always possible. Even

Why is my mental health declining?

Why is my mental health declining?

The majority of individuals who suffer from mental health issues will experience mild to moderate symptoms and conditions which can take the form of depression or anxiety issues.