Opioids – Digital Press Kit


Opioids are a class of drugs that include pain relievers available legally by prescription, the illegal drug heroin, and synthetic opioids such as fentanyl. These drugs activate opioid receptors on nerve cells in the body and brain. Opioid pain relievers can be effective in treatment for relieving pain. However, regular use can lead to dependence, and misuse of opioid pain relievers can lead to dependence, addiction, overdose incidents and possibly, death.

The Opioid Crisis

Paralleling a rapid increase in rates of opioid pain reliever prescribing, widespread use and misuse of these medications has risen at an alarming rate, giving way to a nation-wide crisis. Results from the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health showed that an estimated 2 million people in the United States suffer from substance use disorders related to prescription opioid pain medicines in 2015, the most recent year for which data are available. There is now also a rise in heroin use and heroin addiction as some people shift from prescription opioids to their cheaper street relative. For people under 50 years of age, drug overdose is the leading cause of death.

NIH and the Opioid Crisis

NIH conducts and supports extensive research on pain management, and drug use and misuse. While the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) leads NIH research efforts on drug use, misuse, and addiction, and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) leads NIH research efforts on pain, many of NIH’s Institutes and Centers are involved in these research areas.

In May 2017, NIH announced a new initiative to accelerate the development of innovative medications to treat opioid addiction; explore non-addictive interventions for chronic pain; and improve overdose prevention and treatment strategies, including research into additional overdose reversal medications and breathing stimulation devices. This initiative will engage both academic researchers and the private sector to increase efficient clinical translation of research.

Opioids and Chronic Pain

Chronic pain is a major public health problem that affects an estimated 100 million American adults, approximately one third of the U.S. population. It is the primary reason Americans are on disability and unable to work, and is a top reason cited for seeking medical care. Although opioids may not always be the best course of treatment for chronic pain, the number of prescriptions for opioid pain relievers has increased dramatically in recent years.

NIH Funding

NIH Institutes and Centers support multifaceted research—from pain management to addiction prevention and treatment—to address the opioid crisis. The NIH Research, Condition, and Disease Categorization (RCDC) tracks official NIH funding amounts for opioid and pain-related research in three relevant categories: Prescription Drug Abuse, Pain, and Chronic Pain.

As the primary funder for drug abuse research, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) supports research pertaining to opioid use disorders that includes basic research on addiction, community prevention frameworks, testing of sustainable treatment models, and methods to integrate behavioral interventions with medication assisted therapy.

Given the need to improve pain treatments with less reliance on opioids, NIH funds a wide range of basic, translational, and clinical and studies on pain. The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) leads trans-NIH efforts to encourage and coordinate programs and activities on pain research. From examining the nervous system’s role in pain, to using complementary and integrative health approaches to treat pain, NIH encourages inter- and multi- disciplinary approaches to better address the challenges of treating pain.

NIH Pain Consortium

An integral part of NIH’s larger pain research agenda is the NIH Pain Consortium, activities and programs which currently are coordinated by the Office of Pain Policy, within the Office of the Director at NINDS. Established to enhance research and collaboration on pain activities across NIH’s 27 Institutes and Centers, the Consortium is responsible for coordinating pain research at the NIH, identifying opportunities in pain research, increasing visibility of pain research among the NIH and the larger scientific community, and curriculum resources for health professional schools.

In addition to the Consortium, NIH serves as the lead of the Interagency Pain Research Coordinating Committee, a congressionally-mandated committee comprised of federal agency and department representatives, pain researchers and patient advocates. The committee oversaw the development of the National Pain Strategy, the federal government’s first coordinated plan for reducing the burden of chronic pain for the millions of affected Americans, and the Federal Pain Research Strategy, a component of the National Pain Strategy that identifies and prioritized research recommendations as a basis for a long-term strategic plan to coordinate and advance the federal pain research agenda. 



NIDA Director Dr. Nora Volkow and NINDS Director Dr. Walter Koroshetz talk about opioids, the opioid crisis, chronic pain and the NIH public-private partnership to help fight the crisis. If you would like the files of the video clips, please contact Wally Akinso.

This page last reviewed on December 29, 2017