For millions of Americans, opioids have significantly decreased pain and helped them return to normal lives. While opioids can be extremely effective in pain management, they also can be highly addictive and are often misused. Between 1999 and 2018, more than 232,000 Americans died from overdosing on prescription opioids.
Finding help for your pain shouldn’t have to mean an increased risk of becoming addicted or facing an overdose. This guide provides answers about common opioid questions, offers alternative therapies for pain management, and includes answers from a medical professional.
If you or someone you know needs help for an addition immediately, reach out the National Helpline provided by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
How Are People Managing Pain with Opioids?
Opioid prescriptions rose significantly in the 1990s, but substance abuse and addiction issues have caused the medical community to rethink prescribing drugs classified as opioids – especially for long-term pain management.
What Are Opioids?
Much confusion exists around what constitutes an opioid. At its most basic form, an opiate is a type of drug produced naturally by the opium poppy plant. Laboratories also make synthetic versions. The properties of the opium flower provide pain relief by blocking signals sent by the brain to the body.
Who Needs Medically Supervised Pain Management?
Doctors prescribe opioids for a variety of ailments and injuries, but even when used under the supervision of a medical professional they still come with serious risks. Ideally, opioids should only be prescribed to manage short-term pain resulting in surgeries, broken bones, or other acute issues. When an oral surgeon prescribes an opiate to help with pain after removing wisdom teeth, the drug is only meant to be taken while active pain persists.
Over the last several decades, however, the prescription of opioids has skyrocketed. Pharmaceutical organizations began peddling opioids to prescribing doctors with the assurance that these types of pain relievers were non-addictive. In reality, opioids are highly addictive. Deaths related to opioids first began to rise in the early 1990s; since that time, the numbers have only continued to increase. In 2018 alone, more than 47,000 people died from opioid overdoses – up from 42,000 in 2016. An additional 10.3 million people misused prescription opioids in 2018 and two million Americans faced an opioid use disorder.
The reality is that the vast majority of individuals experiencing pain do not need to be prescribed opioids – especially those with long-term pain issues. Other options exist, but it’s important to find a doctor who is open to exploring alternative pain management treatment plans.
If You Have Been Prescribed Opioids
If prescribed opioids, you should speak with your doctor to ensure you understand risk factors and have a pain management plan in place to mitigate any unforeseen challenges.
When first visiting a doctor, pay close attention to their approach to pain management. “A patient should be concerned if an opioid is the first course of action, especially if they have a new pain or if it’s not classed as severe,” says Dr. Aragona Giuseppe. “Other pain management methods should be tried before resorting to opioids due to their additive nature.”
True or False: Proper Use of Opioids
FAQ: Safety When Taking Opioids
Because opioids carry multiple risk factors, it’s imperative that you take them properly and as prescribed. A few things to keep in mind if you receive an opioid prescription:
Pain Management Plans
Pain management plans are made in consultation with your doctor. These typically include the goals of your treatment, suggested pain management therapies, and plans for how your care team to work together. Creating a plan at the beginning of your treatment ensures awareness from all parties about how opioids should be used. For instance, if your doctor decides that an opioid prescription should only be used on a short-term basis, the pain management plan should spell this out so everyone is on the same page. Be sure to ask your care provider about creating a plan before you begin taking a new prescription.
If You’ve Had Trouble with Opioids in the Past
Because opioids are so addictive, many people may have struggled with an opioid dependency, allergy, or other issue in the past. If this is the case, your doctor should work with you to find an alternative yet effective treatment. A few steps you should take in this situation include:
Recognizing Prescription Opioid Abuse
Even when taking a legally prescribed opioid, you can still develop an opioid abuse disorder. If this happens to you or someone you know, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration’s National Helpline.
Warning Signs of Opioid Abuse
Opioid abuse can manifest in myriad physical, emotional, and behavioral ways. Whether you recognize these in yourself or a loved one, symptoms such as those listed below should not be ignored.
Sudden changes in appetite or weight loss are common in those experiencing opioid abuse. It is also common for individuals to experience uncontrollable cravings and gain weight.
Failure to keep up with bills and other financial responsibilities, or stealing from friends, family members, or businesses, can signal financial irresponsibility due to opioid abuse.
Many individuals struggling with opioid abuse withdraw from those they know and love, both out of shame and a desire to be alone.
Changes in sexual desire
Misuse and overuse of opioids can create changes in sexual desire, specifically a decreased libido.
Altered sleep habits
Staying awake for hours on end or sleeping outside standard rest times can both signal issues at hand.
Because opioids are known to dull the senses, individuals abusing one of these substances may seem extra drowsy.
Disciplinary measures, unsatisfactory work products, and trouble arriving to work on time can all mean the individual is experiencing problems around controlling their opioid use.
What to Do if You Suspect Opioid Addiction
If you suspect that you or someone you know or love is struggling with an opioid dependence, there are several things you can do.
Getting Help for Addiction
Once you or someone you know acknowledge an overdependence or addiction to opioids, it’s important to know that plenty of options exist for getting help. These include:
Both detox and MAT programs are available at patient and outpatient programs, with timelines varying based on individual patient needs. These should also include some type of counseling or therapy to help the person address any underlying mental health concerns related to the drug. Individuals can also attend meetings such as Narcotics Anonymous to find community and support.
If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Reach out to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s National Helpline.
Pain Management Alternatives to Opioids
Myriad pain management alternatives exist for patients who feel unsure about taking opioids or those whose pain may be better managed by a different type of medication. Some of the most common options include the following:
FAQ: Over the Counter Medications
Cannabis for Pain Management
The use of medicinal marijuana, both in THC and CBD forms, has risen in recent years for pain management. While ongoing research continues, a report out of Canada found that taking three hits of cannabis per day reduced pain in patients with chronic nerve pain and increased sleep. In all but nine states, marijuana is either fully legal or available for medicinal use. If unsure whether cannabis could help manage your pain, consider speaking to your doctor about options.
Your Pain Management Questions Answered by a Doctor
Dr. Aragona Giuseppe is a General Practitioner and medical advisor at Prescription Doctor. Prescription Doctor connects healthcare professionals with patients via private and discrete online appointments.
Resources for Pain Management Support and Opioid Information
- Comprehensive Pain Rehabilitation Center
The Mayo Clinic offers a three-week outpatient program designed to help patients with chronic pain find answers and get on with their lives.
- The Echo Project
This innovative telehealth pain management program, organized by the University of New Mexico, allows practitioners from across the country to get assistance on unique cases.
- Guideline for Prescribing Opioids for Chronic Pain
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention created this guide to specifically offer recommendations on the use of opioids in treating chronic pain.
- Medical Cannabis and Pain Management
This paper in the Journal of Applied Laboratory Medicine investigates how marijuana can be used in treating pain.
- Non-Opioid Treatment for Pain Management
The American Society of Anesthesiologists looks at alternative medications that can help manage pain.
- Opioid Use and Safety
Readers can find actionable information on how to responsibly take opioids from Kaiser Permanente.
This nonprofit organization offers several resources and tips on pain management in a variety of patients.
- Pain Management Best Practices
The Interagency Pain Research Coordinating Committee, as part of the National Institutes of Health, created a report on acute and chronic pain management.
- Rural Opioid Technical Assistance
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration developed this program to help rural communities address the opioid crisis.
- Safe and Responsible Use of Opioids for Chronic Pain
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs offers this accessible patient information guide for individuals wanting to learn more.