In the 1990s, a certain pharmaceutical drug was released with the intention of offering a means of relief to those who suffered from serious injuries or conditions that involve chronic pain. At the time, there was very little evidence to suggest that the drug should be the cause of any concern, which is why doctors and physicians began prescribing it to patients quite liberally.
Unfortunately, we came to discover that the drug — OxyContin — could not only be abused but had an exceptionally high addictive potential. This marked the beginning of what one might refer to as the OxyContin era, and although the past couple years have seen a small decline in the rate at which Americans are becoming addicted to prescription pain medications, the effects of the OxyContin and painkiller epidemics on society can still be readily seen today.
With a greater awareness of addictive and abuse potential, today’s healthcare providers have a number of different substances from which to choose when treating patients’ afflictions. Although it’s still relatively common for doctors and physicians to prescribe opiate painkillers to patients, there are a number of federal regulations in place as well as prescription drug monitoring programs in each state that help to ensure that these dangerous substances are kept out of the wrong hands.
Additionally, in instances when some sort of pain medication is necessary, many physicians will first attempt to use an alternative to opiates, something that’s not a controlled and, therefore, dangerous substance with a high potential for abuse.
Tramadol is one such non-narcotic medication that’s often prescribed as an alternative to opiate painkillers. However, many have begun to assert that tramadol should actually be considered a narcotic and become a controlled substance. As such, the following will define the drug — what it is and what it’s used to treat — and explain why tramadol is an opioid, technically.
In this post, we’ll answer these questions:
- Is tramadol an opiate?
- Is tramadol a controlled substance?
- What drug classification is tramadol in?
- What are the side effects of tramadol?
- Can you get high off of tramadol?
Tramadol Classification: What Exactly Is It? Is Tramadol an Opiate?
Tramadol — which is sold under the more well-known brand name Ultram — is a medication that was first approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat moderate to severe pain in 1995. Rather than being classified as a painkiller like oxycodone and other opiate drugs, tramadol is described as a “narcotic-like” pain reliever and was widely held to be safe with very little potential for respiratory depression.
Therefore, officially, tramadol is not a narcotic, but it is an opiate. This is because it binds to opioid receptors in the brain.
The drug works by affecting how the brain responds to or perceives pain, causing an increase in the production of neurotransmitters such as norepinephrine, serotonin, and also hormones such as endorphins. In effect, these are natural substances that work to alleviate feelings of pain.
Alternately, the drug’s psychoactive properties have led to its occasional use as a mild antidepressant. However, in terms of its potency, it’s been said that tramadol is roughly equivalent to codeine in strength and a dose of tramadol is about ten percent of the strength of a same-sized dose of morphine. Because of its relatively weak strength, tramadol finds itself in the “non-narcotic pain meds” drug class. However, experiencing the adverse tramadol side effects can lead to issues not accounted for by the FDA.
Not a Safe Alternative: Tramadol Side Effects
Being that the drug works similarly to the opiate painkillers with which it’s often compared, it wasn’t long before people began experimenting with tramadol and realized that it had a very similar potential for abuse. As it’s most commonly prescribed for the treatment of pain, users began taking tramadol to dangerous excess, resulting in dire consequences.
Regardless of the vague classification, the tramadol side effects are very concrete. Here is what you might be able to expect to experience by abusing tramadol:
- dizziness, nausea, and vomiting
- constipation and diarrhea
- low blood pressure
- difficulty breathing
- skin reactions or swelling
- depression or suicidal thoughts
Keep in mind that some of these tramadol side effects are rare and may not appear in your case. However, you should ask your doctor about the potential for these effects before taking tramadol.
And despite the negative effects that often result from improper use of the drug, rates of tramadol abuse continued to climb. By 2011, there were more than 20,000 emergency room visits attributed to the abuse of tramadol across the country. Additionally, there were 379 tramadol overdose deaths in 2011 in the state of Florida alone, which was more than a threefold increased from the 106 tramadol overdose deaths that were recorded in the state in 2003.
It’s not just the abuse of tramadol that poses a major threat to those who use the drug. Although it was previously thought to be a safe alternative to opiates, it was recently found that one can, in fact, become addicted to tramadol. When an individual continues to take or abuse tramadol over a period of time, he or she is very likely to form a strong chemical dependency.
This is made worse by the drug’s psychoactive properties, allowing it to further alter an individual’s mental and emotional state and even cause strong psychological urges to use the drug. In fact, since the tramadol side effects weaker than others in terms of its efficacy as a painkiller, the psychoactive properties and its effects on brain chemistry — levels of neurochemicals and hormones — are significantly more pronounced than any euphoria it might offer. Another major risk of tramadol abuse is the tendency for the drug to cause seizures at high doses.
Tramadol & Serotonin Syndrome
Being that the drug’s most pronounced effects pertain to the levels of norepinephrine and serotonin in the brain, the abuse of tramadol has the potential to cause harm that’s very much unlike what one might expect from the abuse of opiate painkillers. In particular, tramadol abuse and addiction have been associated with a condition known as serotonin syndrome, which occurs when a serotonergic medication causes a buildup of so much serotonin in the body as to actually become toxic.
Some of the most common symptoms of serotonin syndrome include confusion, irritability, disorientation, muscle spasms and/or rigidity, rapid heartbeat, high blood pressure, nausea, diarrhea, tremors and shivering, anxiety, and dilated pupils. In the most severe cases, an individual might begin to have seizures, become unresponsive, or slip into a coma.
Q. Is Tramadol an Opioid?
A. Yes, tramadol is an opioid. This is because it binds to opioid receptors and inhibit’s the brain’s ability to perceive pain, exactly like other opioids such as fentanyl and heroin.
Q. Is Tramadol a Controlled Substance?
A. Yes. Originally, in 1995, tramadol was not considered a controlled substance. However, due to the overwhelming recreational use of tramadol, the Drug Enforcement Administration labeled it a controlled substance in 2014. Tramadol is now considered a schedule IV controlled substance throughout the U.S.
Q. What Schedule is Tramadol?
A. Tramadol is a schedule IV drug according to the Controlled Substances Act. This means that a tramadol prescription can be refilled only five times in six months. Once you reach your limit (or six months have passed since the original tramadol prescription) you will need a new prescription.
Q. What Are Some Non-Narcotic Pain Med Options?
A. Here are some pain management options that don’t require the use of narcotics:
- Acetaminophen (Tylenol)
- Ibuprofen (Advil)
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs)
Q. Does Tramadol Get You High?
A. Because tramadol blocks opioid receptors, it naturally increases the presence of neurotransmitters such as seratonin. This creates a feeling of euphoria and pleasure. This is why tramadol has addictive tendencies and why many people take it recreationally. However, the tramadol high is not anywhere near as powerful as other drugs that target opioid receptors such as oxycodone, morphine, and fentanyl.
Q. What is in Tramadol?
A. Tramadol is a synthetic drug that is derived from the opium poppy plant resin used to create drugs like heroin. The chemical structure of tramadol is 4-phenyl-piperidine. It’s closest chemical relative is codeine.
Tramadol Dependency & Recovery Treatment at the Palm Beach Institute
With its high addictive potential and the dangerous effects that result from its abuse, it’s clear that tramadol isn’t the safe non-narcotic alternative it was once thought to be. Fortunately, tramadol addiction is a treatable affliction.
An individual suffering from tramadol addiction can begin the recovery process with detox treatment, which will help them restore his or her body to a state of health and balance; during this time, the individual will receive continuous monitoring and care to ensure safety and minimize as much discomfort as possible.
After detoxification, an individual will begin counseling and psychotherapy while participating in a variety of other program offerings, including group sessions, life skills groups, relapse prevention education, and other complementary or supplemental treatments. With determination and aftercare, an individual who had previously suffered from tramadol addiction can live a life free from addiction.
Our recovery specialists are available anytime, day or night. With one phone call, you or your loved one can begin the journey back to a life of lasting health and happiness.