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What are Synthetic Opioids?

Open bottle with synthetic opioids scattered across a table, highlighting the potential for misuse.

Synthetic opioids have become a critical tool in managing severe pain, providing relief where other medications may fall short. These powerful substances, created in labs to act like natural painkillers, serve an essential role in modern medicine. However, their strength and potential for misuse poses challenges, not just for individuals but for public health as a whole. 

By learning more about synthetic opioids, we can better understand what they are, how they work in the brain, and the risks they carry. Let’s explore synthetic opioids, focusing on their use, the science behind their effects on the brain, and the risks and signs of opioid addiction.

What are Synthetic Opioids?

Synthetic opioids are a class of psychoactive drugs made to mimic the pain-relief properties of opiates, a group of natural substances derived from the opium poppy plant. Unlike their natural counterparts, synthetic opioids are created in pharmaceutical laboratories. They’re designed to have the similar and sometimes enhanced effects like morphine, heroin and codeine. These man-made substances with interact the brain’s opioid receptors in a similar way to opiates, providing significant pain relief for various conditions. 

Woman holding a glass of water, about to take a synthetic opioid, depicting medication use.

Examples of Synthetic Opioids

Synthetic opioids represent a diverse group of medications. Each have unique properties and applications, useful in medical settings but, unfortunately, also in substance misuse. The most common synthetic opioids are Fentanyl, Methadone, Tramadol and Buprenorphine. They stand out due to their widespread use and major impact on pain management and addiction treatment.: 


This powerful drug is at least 50 times more powerful than morphine, making it the most potent synthetic opioid for pain relief. While fentanyl plays a crucial role in managing severe pain, particularly in surgical cases, its high potency has also led to its misuse and illegal street distribution, posing a risk of overdose.


Methadone is a synthetic opioid, commonly used as an effective treatment for severe pain and a cornerstone in medication-assisted treatment (MAT) for opioid addiction. Its use in MAT helps individuals reduce or quit their use of heroin or other opioids, providing a path towards recovery.


Originally intended as an elephant tranquilizer due to its extreme potency – 10,000 times stronger than morphine – Carfentanil has unfortunately found its way into illicit drug markets. Its use as a cutting agent in drugs like heroin significantly increases the risk of unintentional overdoses.


Tramadol is used for moderate to severe pain relief and is available in both oral and injectable forms. Its versatility and effectiveness make it a valuable tool in pain management, though, like other opioids, it carries a risk of dependence and misuse.

How Do Synthetic Opioids Work? 

Synthetic opioids target the brain’s opioid receptors, mimicking endorphins, our natural painkillers, to alleviate pain. This action not only reduces pain but also triggers a release of dopamine, leading to a feeling of euphoria. This rewarding sensation is what can make synthetic opioids incredibly effective as pain relievers but also poses a risk for misuse.

Regular use can make the brain depend on synthetic opioids to release dopamine. This dependence can undermine the brain’s natural mood and pain regulation. Quickly, this dependence can turn into an addiction. The body then demands higher doses for the same relief or pleasure, increasing the risk of overdose and death. 

Inside view of a brain highlighting nerves and receptors.

Dangers & Risks of Synthetic Opioid Use

While synthetic opioids share similar risks with their natural counterparts, their heightened potency amplifies the potential for harm. Individuals who misuse synthetic opioids may face severe effects including:

  • High risk of overdose: Taking more medication than prescribed or mixing synthetic opioids with alcohol, benzodiazepines or other opioids can result in overdose and death.
  • Damage to veins: Injecting synthetic opioids into your arteries or veins can cause severe harm to your body’s circulatory system. They can lead to blood clots, infections or the gradual destruction of tissue in your limbs over a longer period of use.
  • Negative effects associated with natural opioids: Despite their synthetic origin, these drugs can induce adverse effects similar to natural opioids. Individuals might experience a range of symptoms such as loss of consciousness, coma, lethargy, nausea, itching and constipation.

Using synthetic opioids without a doctor’s prescription can often spiral into addiction. This dependency to synthetic opioids can wreck havoc on an individual’s personal and professional life. It can lead to strained or broken family relationships, poor health and the loss of employment or employment opportunities.

Man in a dark room with his head in hands, hunched over, symbolizing depression possibly related to synthetic opioid use.

Key Signs of Opioid Use Disorder

It can be particularly challenging to identify when someone you know is misusing synthetic opioids or any other opioids. Recognizing opioid use disorder (OUD) is crucial for early intervention and treatment. It requires careful observation of an individual’s behaviors, physical symptoms, and emotional changes. Look out for these critical signs:

  • Growing obsession with acquiring and using synthetic opioids: This could show up as constantly thinking about the drug, planning for the next dose, and going out of the way to get more.
  • Continuing use despite harmful effects: Individuals may continue using synthetic opioids even when it damages their relationships, job performance, education, or health.
  • Withdrawal symptoms indicating dependence: Withdrawal symptoms from synthetic opioids can include restlessness, excessive sweating, insomnia, and severe discomfort, similar to flu symptoms.
  • Taking risks to get the drug: This could involve seeking multiple doctors to get prescriptions (doctor shopping), buying drugs illegally off the streets, or engaging in illegal activities to feed their addiction.
  • Neglecting daily responsibilities: Addiction may lead to ignoring work, school, family duties, or personal care.
  • Shifts in social groups: Switching to new friends involved in drug use, often losing touch with family or old friends.
  • Mood swings: Sudden changes in mood, from feeling extremely happy to quickly become irritable or sad.
  • Losing interest in fun activities: Not caring about hobbies, hanging out with friends, or other interests that were once enjoyable.
  • Increasing secrecy and isolation: Hiding drug use that can lead to keeping secrets and staying away from others. 
  • Increased tolerance and dosage: A clear sign of addiction is needing more of the drug to achieve the same feeling or when the usual amount becomes less effective.

Recognizing these behaviors can be a critical alert that synthetic opioid use has evolved into a disorder. Early detection is key to seeking effective treatment. This often involves medication-assisted therapy and counseling, which are vital steps towards recovery.

Start Your Opioid Addiction Recovery at BAART Programs

Confronting an addiction to synthetic opioids requires courage and support. At BAART Programs, we offer comprehensive treatment plans that combine medication-assisted treatment with substance use counseling. This approach addresses both the physical and emotional aspects of addiction. We support individuals through their recovery journey, providing tools and resources to rebuild a life free from opioid dependence.

If you or someone you know is struggling with opioid addiction, take the first step today. Find a treatment center near you by visiting our website. Contact us by phone or send us a message to learn more about our services.

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