Tramadol, a type of painkiller known as an opioid analgesic (marketed as Ultram, Dromadol, Ralivia or several other names), is chemically similar to morphine, codeine, hydrocodone and other opiates.
Doctors typically prescribe tramadol to treat moderate to moderately severe pain, after surgery, and in cases of arthritis, fibromyalgia and other chronic pain conditions. Long-term use of tramadol can lead to withdrawal symptoms, though health professionals consider the risk of dependence low compared with the risk of dependence associated with similar opiate drugs.
Drug companies worldwide have manufactured tramadol since it was first introduced in 1977 by German drug maker Grünenthal GmbH. But its marketing status could change after the recent discovery that an African plant makes the medicine in significant quantities.
In September 2013, researchers found that Nauclea latifolia, or African pin cushion tree, produces this compound naturally; scientists investigating the source of the plant's medicinal properties discovered tramadol in the shrub's roots. The plant grows across central and western Africa, and local people have long used it to treat maladies ranging from malaria to general pain.
Though other vegetation has been found to produce synthetically made medicines, this is one of the first times a plant has produced a high enough concentration to be clinically useful. The researchers have already developed a simple method of extracting tramadol from the shrub's roots.