Morphineis one of the world’s most ubiquitous and useful pain relievers. It’s a natural medicine derived from the opium poppy plant. Since its discovery, it has been the key element in the family of opioid drugs — including cough syrup, codeine, fentanyl (Actiq, Fentora, Sublimaze), heroin, oxycodone (Oxycontin, Oxaydo, others) and hydrocodone (Hysingla ER).
What does morphine do?
Morphine is a pain medicine known as an opioid analgesic. Frequently referred to as a narcotic, morphine reduces pain by interrupting signals between the brain and the body. It’s used regularly for clinical pain management, particularly for terminal cancer patients, people recovering from surgeries and trauma victims. Morphine is also used as a cough suppressant.
Morphine is also potentially addictive. This means that over time, people may gradually lose control over how much of the drug they use — and begin losing control over their lives. The body builds a tolerance to the drug, and over time, people need to increase the dose to get the same effects. In some people, morphine causes a strong pleasurable sensation. In others, morphine can calm emotions and reduce anxiety.
Where did morphine come from?
In today’s world, there’s a lot of discussion about opioids and the opioid crisis. While opioid use might seem like a modern idea, morphine is one of the latest chapters in a long history of human opium use. Here’s a timeline of opium and morphine milestones.
6000 B.C.: Ancient civilizations start cultivating opium
People have used opium medicinally and recreationally for thousands of years. About 6,000 years ago, the Mesopotamians called opium “the plant of joy.” Records from 1100 to 800 B.C. show that Arab physicians included opium in medicines thought to cure insanity, epilepsy and the common cold. Homer, the Greek philosopher from the eighth century B.C., even mentions opium in The Odyssey.
The 1500s: Opium becomes widely available in Europe
Paracelsus, a Swiss physician who some call the “father of toxicology,” is credited with reintroducing opium to Europe. He popularized opium tinctures and alcoholic solutions.
1803: Morphine is discovered
By the early 1800s, physicians and scientists were aware of opium’s addictive qualities and started looking for a safer way to use opioids for pain relief and cough suppression.
That’s when Freidrich Sertürner, a 21-year-old pharmacist’s assistant, started conducting experiments with opium. In 1803, he isolated an organic alkaloid — a plant compound that has physiological effects on humans — from a resinous gum in the opium poppy plant. After conducting several years of experiments (mainly on himself), Sertürner recognized the alkaloid was a significantly stronger pain reliever and cough suppressant than opium itself. He named the compound after the Greek god of sleep, Morpheus, because it made people sleepy.
The 1850s: Morphine becomes a blessing and a curse
By the mid-1800s, morphine was commercially produced, and, with the invention of the hypodermic needle, morphine became easier to administer. Physicians regularly recommended it for chronic pain, and it was even touted as a way to overcome opium addiction. Around the same time, European countries went to war with China, fighting for the right to import Chinese-cultivated opium. Early hints that morphine should be used cautiously were largely ignored.
Unfortunately, the adverse effects of morphine became apparent quickly. During the American Civil War (1861 to 1865), injured soldiers were treated with morphine and some developed lifelong addictions after the war — sometimes resulting in overdose and death.
Without many other options for pain relief, physicians kept giving patients morphine for chronic pain. Additionally, society in the 1880s considered addiction to morphine a moral deficiency instead of a medical issue. Between 1870 and 1880, the per capita use of morphine tripled.
1874: Heroin is introduced as a cure for morphine addiction
By the end of the 19th century, scientists began looking for a less addictive painkiller. In 1874, Alder Wright, a chemist, created heroin — a combination of morphine and other chemicals. Although heroin was originally considered to be a treatment for morphine addiction, it soon became clear that heroin was more potent and addictive than morphine.
The early 1900s: Morphine becomes regulated and use decreases
Before the 1900s, there was little regulation of opioid drugs. Morphine and opium poppy could be used legally without a medical prescription. Importing and distributing opium and opioids was also legal. However, governments worldwide began to consider regulations to restrict morphine abuse.
In the United States, the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 required labeling medicines that contained intoxicants such as morphine. By 1914, Congress passed the Harrison Narcotics Act, which regulated and taxed the production, importation and distribution of opioids. It also essentially restricted opioid use to pain management. Prescribers, such as physicians and pharmacists, were given the responsibility to manage opioid dispensation. A few years later, the 1924 Heroin Act outlawed all use of heroin. These regulations led to a dramatic decrease in the use of morphine and other opioids.
Today: Morphine is generally safe when used in clinical settings
Since the 1920s, modern medicine and pharmaceuticals have advanced. During the 1940s, synthetic and semi-synthetic opioids — meaning they were completely developed through a chemical process or were created from chemical changes to the original opium plant — started to emerge. Although morphine is still used in clinical practice, there are now several opioids that are significantly more powerful, some of which are synthetic or semi-synthetic. However, morphine is still the standard by which pain relievers are measured. For example, hydromorphone (a semi-synthetic opioid) is “4 times stronger than morphine.”
Today, laws and guidelines around morphine and all opioids continue to evolve. With new guidelines for patient care and higher awareness of opioid addiction, morphine can be a safe pain relief tool in a clinical setting.
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