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What is Tramadol?

By Manjari Bansal
Tramadol is a pain medication that carries a risk of misuse and addiction. However, it is generally safer than many other controlled substances.

Tramadol is a strong painkiller prescribed to treat moderate to severe pain. Since it belongs to the category of opioid analgesics, it may cause addiction if misused. Read on for important insights about using this medication.

Is tramadol an opioid?

“Tramadol is a synthetic opioid analgesic that is used to help relieve physical pain,” Aaron Sternlicht, LMHC, CASAC, a therapist and co-founder of Family Addiction Specialist in New York, tells WebMD Connect to Care.

Doctors prescribe tramadol to treat acute and chronic pain of moderate to severe intensity, the World Health Organization (WHO) notes. Its pain-relieving potency is considered to be one-tenth of that of morphine. It is also considered a relatively safe painkiller, and common side effects may include nausea, vomiting, and dizziness.

Tramadol relieves pain by acting on your central nervous system. “It acts on receptors in the brain to block pain signals while also increasing levels of feel-good neurotransmitters such as serotonin and norepinephrine,” Sternlicht says.

Like other drugs, tramadol may also cause some side effects, although these are rare, according to the UK's National Health Service. Tramadol side effects occur in around 1 in 100 people and may include:

  • Headache
  • Sleepiness or tiredness
  • Constipation
  • Sweating
  • Dry mouth
  • Low energy

Is tramadol addictive?

“Although tramadol has lower opioid content than some other opioid-based painkillers, tramadol can still become habit-forming and develop into dependence. Individuals may develop a mental dependence in which they experience psychological cravings and urges to use tramadol, and they may also develop a physical dependence in which they experience withdrawal symptoms if they stop or reduce the medication,” Sternlicht says.

When tramadol was first approved in 1995, it was not considered an opiate, according to Harvard Health Publishing. However, with increasing cases of tramadol misuse, the Food and Drug Administration added tramadol to its list of controlled substances in 2014. This means that although the drug is medically beneficial, it has the potential for addiction.

However, Harvard Health Publishing notes that tramadol is generally at the safer end of the spectrum. As it is classified as a Schedule IV drug, this means that it has a lower potential for abuse than drugs like heroin (classifed as Schedule I) and OxyContin (classifed as Schedule II).  

According to the University of Michigan Health, there are few things you should know about taking tramadol:

  • Always follow the instructions on your prescription label and never use tramadol more than prescribed or for a longer duration.
  • Never share tramadol with anyone else, especially if they have a history of drug addiction. Tramadol misuse may cause addiction, overdose, or even death.
  • Take the medicine as directed by your doctor. Never crush, chew, inhale, or inject the drug, as it can be life-threatening.
  • Never stop the medicine abruptly, as it may cause unpleasant withdrawal symptoms. Talk to your doctor about the safe stoppage of the drug.
  • Store your medicines in a safe place that is out of reach for children or pets. Keep a track of your medications, as even one dose can be critically harmful to others.   

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