Tramadol is a prescription pain medication that is used to treat chronic pain. The chemical that makes ups tramadol, tramadol hydrochloride, is similar in structure to other opioid drugs, however the effects it has on the body are slightly different. For this reason, there can be some confusion around whether it is an opioid.

What is an Opioid?

An opioid is a substance that binds to opioid receptors in the brain and central nervous system. The opioid receptors in the brain control pain response and can create pleasurable or euphoric feelings when activated. Therefore, “opioid” is a general term for a class of drugs that are used for pain medication.

Opioids can be synthetic or made from opiates, which are found naturally in opium plants. Examples of opiates include morphine, codeine and heroin. Synthetically made opioids include fentanyl and methadone. There are also semi-synthetic opioids, which are alterations of opiates, including hydrocodone and oxycodone.

Is Tramadol Considered an Opioid?

Tramadol is considered an opioid. Tramadol is a synthetically made medicine that resembles opioids. By definition, an opioid binds to the opioid receptor. Tramadol binds to the opioid receptor and is therefore considered an opioid. However, the way tramadol binds to the opioid receptor is not the same as most other opioids. Tramadol binds weakly to opioid receptors and therefore is not considered a classic opioid, but a rather weak opioid.

In addition to being a weak opioid, tramadol has a slightly different mechanism of action than classic opioids. Tramadol affects two neurotransmitters, serotonin and norepinephrine. Tramadol inhibits their reuptake, which causes the neurotransmitters to be more available for use in the brain. Both norepinephrine and serotonin are involved in feeling pleasure, so increasing their availability can lead to a euphoric high. Drugs aimed at inhibiting the reuptake of norepinephrine and serotonin are used to treat depression and other mental health disorders.

Dangers of Tramadol and Other Synthetic Opioids

Like other synthetic opioids, tramadol is a painkiller that is prescribed for moderate or severe pain. Most opioids are only used short-term, as they can be highly addictive. Due to its weaker binding of the opioid receptor, tramadol is slightly less addictive compared to other opioids, however, it still has a high potential for abuse. When used other than as prescribed or in higher doses than recommended, opioids can have dangerous side effects and can even lead to death. Opioid use disorders are a prevalent and serious problem in the United States.

  • Sources

    National Institute of Drug Abuse. “Opioids.” Accessed September 7, 2019.

    Food and Drug Administration. “Tramadol Prescribing Information.” May 2010. Accessed September 7, 2019.

    Drug Enforcement Administration. “Tramadol.” October 2018. Accessed September 7, 2019.