Improving Pain Management Communication: How Patients Understand the Terms “Opioid” and “Narcotic”

  • Michael P. MangioneEmail author
  • Megan Crowley-Matoka
Original Article



Pain specialists often advocate discontinuing use of the term “narcotic,” with the negative connotations it bears for many patients, in favor of the term “opioid.” To contribute empirical data to this argument, we elicited and compared patient understandings of the terms “narcotic” and “opioid.”


Brief, anonymous surveys were administered to 100 outpatients. Respondents were asked to describe what a narcotic/opioid is, give example(s), explain why someone would take a narcotic/opioid and describe long term consequences of use.


Of the 100 outpatients, 86% responded “don’t know” to all four opioid questions. Only 12% did not know what a narcotic was (p < 001). While 50% of patients related “narcotics” to pain management, more than a third cited addiction or abuse. Of the 100 outpatients, 78% feared an adverse outcome from long-term narcotic use, with 66% of those answers citing “addiction.”


Most patients were unfamiliar with the term opioid, while a substantial percentage identified a narcotic as an illegal drug and most reported adverse consequences as the outcome of long term use. Our findings, while preliminary, suggest that “opioid” is a more unfamiliar term, but raise questions about whether simply using different terminology would affect patient fears about this class of medications.


narcotic opioid pain addiction 




Conflict of Interest

The corresponding author has served as a consulting medical expert in pain management. There are no other potential conflicts of interest.


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Copyright information

© Society of General Internal Medicine 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of Pittsburgh School of MedicinePittsburghUSA
  2. 2.VA Center for Health Equity Research and PromotionUniversity of PittsburghPittsburghUSA

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