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By: Dr. David Gregg, Chief Medical Officer, StayWell

Modern medicine has worked near miracles treating ailments, illnesses and pain. And while the achievements and necessity of medication cannot be overstated, there are also several downsides to the wide availability of some pain killers, such as opioids, for pain management.

In the United States alone, opioid abuse has been prevalent since the 1900’s, with more than 49,000 deaths in 2017 from overdoses. Taken as prescribed, opioids are generally safe and can help manage pain. However, when administered for an extended period of time, there is a risk of forming a tolerance or dependence to the medication. While this is much less common when opioids are used as directed under the care of a healthcare provider, it’s important to understand the differences between these risks in order to help you know what to expect when taking opioids and what to do if addiction is suspected.

  •  Tolerance. This occurs when your body needs higher amounts of a drugs to achieve relief effects. Most patients who take opioids for longer than a few weeks form a tolerance, which is normal. However, its crucial to speak with a provider who can help better manage this tolerance and ensure that pain is still being controlled throughout the course of your prescription.
  • Dependence. Patients who may have withdrawal symptoms when instructed to reduce or complete taking their medication would be considered to be in the dependence stage. Symptoms of dependence can include sleeplessness, rapid heartbeat, rapid breathing, and diarrhea, and are formed among people who have been taking opioids regularly for a long period of time. If ever during the course of your time taking opioids you feel you may be becoming dependent on the medication, seek help from your physician as soon as possible.
  • Addiction. A state of addiction occurs when an individual seeks out medication and cannot stop using them despite the harmful side effects. Some people, such as those who have a history of drug misuse, are at higher risk for addiction. Healthcare providers should monitor regularly for signs of addiction, but if you suspect any form of potential addiction, it’s important to call a provider right away so you can discuss alternative options.

Before prescribing opioids for any type of pain management, healthcare providers will work closely with you to form a treatment plan. In doing so, you can share more about the type of pain you are having, your health history and ultimate treatment goals. The objective of an opioid treatment plan is to improve the function of daily life and make sure you are realistic about the possible benefits opioids provide.

Taking Opioid Medicines Safely and Effectively

If your doctor believes that opioids are your best bet to manage pain, it’s extremely important you take the medication exactly as directed to ensure it is working correctly. This also lowers the chances of side effects and the risk for overdose. To help reduce risks, be sure you are taking the opioid on a regular basis or only as needed. In addition, do not take someone else’s opioids or share yours with others, and beware of interactions. Certain medicines can be dangerous, even fatal, when used with opioids. Therefore, you should consult your pharmacist about the other medications you are taking to ensure no adverse reactions will occur. Finally, safe use of opioids includes proper storage and disposal. This helps protect others from taking the medicine by accident and helps prevent theft and misuse of the medicine.

Educating patients about the risks of opioids is a helpful step in preventing the escalation of the current opioid crisis. As such, we encourage you to talk to your doctor about the different methods of treatment before filling any prescription. It’s important to remember that often times there may be other medications that may work just as well for you. For more information about opioids, download our booklet, “Opioids for Pain Management or contact a member of our team today.