Tramadol is a mild opioid drug prescribed mainly to treat moderate to severe pain that is expected to go away. The drug binds to the opioid receptors in the brain and changes how these receptors manage pain signals from the body. This helps the body stop feeling pain as severely, allowing the person to function. The medication is intended to stop being used when pain from the injury or surgery has dissipated.
As a Schedule IV medicine, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), tramadol is not as closely monitored as other prescription narcotics, like OxyContin or Vicodin. However, this opioid painkiller has still been linked to substance abuse problems, leading people to struggle with opioid addiction. The medicine now features a more serious warning about potential addiction risks, informing doctors and patients that the drug should only be taken with a doctor’s knowledge and supervision.
Tramadol has been prescribed to treat a variety of ailments that may cause moderate to severe pain. It can be used in treating neuropathic (nerve-based) pain, or tender and stiff muscles, associated with injury; or disorders that cause pain like arthritis. Here are some of the most common pain conditions treated with a tramadol prescription:
- Emergency room treatment of moderate pain
- Fibromyalgia, although not in the US
- Multiple sclerosis, specifically treating burning dysesthesias as needed
- Neuropathic cancer pain
- Chronic migraine headaches for as-needed relief
- Peripheral neuropathy from nerve damage, which may be caused by:
- Being overweight
- High blood pressure
- Being over the age of 40
- Chronic back pain from injury or illness, especially lumbar disc herniation
- Joint damage
- Osteoarthritis, although it will not reduce swelling in the joints
There are other, less common ways that tramadol is prescribed, including for the following conditions:
- Restless leg syndrome: Discomfort in the legs may lead to burning or painful sensations; for people who experience this consistently, a doctor may prescribe tramadol to treat pain as needed.
- Post-herpetic neuralgia: The virus herpes can manifest in several ways, and one of the more common and destructive presentations is shingles, or herpes zoster. About 20 percent of people who contract shingles develop post-herpetic neuralgia, a condition with presentation similar to the burning discomfort of neurological conditions like peripheral neuropathy. Sometimes, tramadol is prescribed to treat serious cases of neuralgia.
- Depression: Tramadol can block reuptake of some neurotransmitters like serotonin and norepinephrine, so it is very rarely prescribed off-label to treat depressive conditions.
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD): Because tramadol affects neurotransmitters, it is also being investigated as a treatment for OCD.
Tramadol is also sometimes prescribed in veterinary medicine to treat pain in pets, especially dogs. In pets, tramadol is prescribed to treat conditions similar to those in humans.
IMS Health found in a National Prescription Audit Plus that there were 43.8 million prescriptions for tramadol in the United States in 2013 alone. The drug is widely prescribed, so it is likely that a person suffering moderate to severe pain could receive a doctor’s approval to take this drug. This puts millions of people at risk for developing an addiction to this prescription medicine since tramadol prescriptions are not as tightly controlled and monitored as prescriptions of other opioid painkillers. Even people who do not compulsively ingest more tramadol than they need can develop physical dependence on the drug and may need a doctor’s supervision to taper off the medication.