From headaches to arthritis, humans experience a range of different pains. These may also come from a traumatic accident, such as a car crash or slip and fall. Pain can debilitate, preventing people from going to work and doing their daily activities. Luckily, people can find relief with painkillers.
Opiates as painkillers have been around for thousands of years, originally derived from poppies. Back in the Stone Age, the typical belief was that pain came from spirits or the gods. Pain remedies included animal sacrifices and religious offerings. In Ancient Egypt, people used electric eels on wounds a practice somewhat similar to the electrical nerve stimulation we use today for some aches and pains. The Ancient Greeks followed the wisdom of Hippocrates and used willow leaves and bark for pain management (a natural source of salicylic acid and the main ingredient in aspirin).
In the Middle Ages, the use of herbs for pain management became popularized. During the 16th century, chemists used opium prepared in alcohol, creating a tincture known as laudanum. By the 1800s, however, physicians were using morphine in its pure form. This is where drug dependency really became an issue.
In the sixteenth century, laudanum, opium prepared in an alcoholic solution, a painkiller.
Morphine was first extracted from opium in a pure form in the early nineteenth century. It was used widely as a painkiller during the American Civil War, and as these were so much powerful many soldiers became addicted.
Codeine, a less powerful drug that is found in opium but can be synthesized was first isolated in 1830 in France by Jean-Pierre Robiquet, to replace raw opium for medical purposes. It is used mainly as a cough remedy.
Throughout the early nineteenth century, the recreational use of opium grew and by 1830, the British dependence on the drug reached an all-time high. Chinese weren’t happy about the growth of the opium as painkillers. The British sent warships to the coast of China in 1839 in response to China’s attempt to suppress the opium traffic, beginning the “First Opium War.”
In 1874, chemists trying to find a less addictive form of morphine made heroin. But heroin had twice the potency of morphine, and heroin addiction soon became a serious problem. Many became addicted to heroin (Diamorphine) and they even get into violence for getting heroin.
The US Congress banned opium in 1905 and the next year passed the Pure Food and Drug Act requiring contents labelling on all medicines.
Methadone was first synthesized in 1937 by German scientists Max Bockmühl and Gustav Ehrhart at the IG Farben company. They were searching for a painkiller that would be easier to use during surgery, with less addiction potential than morphine or heroin.
Yet methadone is believed by many to be even more addictive than heroin.
Meanwhile, the illegal opium trade boomed. By 1995, Southeast Asia was producing 2,500 tons annually.
New painkillers came on the market with approval from the Food and Drug Administration: Vicodin in 1984, OxyContin in 1995 and Percocet in 1999.
These are all synthetic opiates which mimic the body’s own painkillers.
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