Modern medicine has worked near miracles treating ailments, illnesses, and pain. While the achievements and necessity of medication can’t be overstated, there are also several downsides to the wide availability of pain killers, such as opioids, for pain management.
Opioid abuse has skyrocketed in the United States over the past few decades. Overdose deaths were already increasing, but the coronavirus pandemic exacerbated the issue, resulting in the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in 2020.1
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 a health care provider, it’s important to understand the differences between these risks in order to identify if addiction is suspected.
This occurs when a patient's body needs higher amounts of a drug to achieve relief effects. Most patients who take opioids for longer than a few weeks form a tolerance, which is normal. But it’s crucial for patients to speak with a provider who can help better manage the tolerance and ensure the pain is still being controlled throughout the course of the prescription.
Patients who may experience withdrawal symptoms when instructed to reduce or stop taking medication would fall into the dependence stage. Dependence symptoms can occur among people who have been taking opioids regularly for a long period of time. Symptoms may include sleeplessness, rapid heartbeat, rapid breathing, and diarrhea. Patients that feel they are becoming too dependent on medication should seek help from their physician as soon as possible.
A state of addiction occurs when an individual seeks out and can’t stop using medication despite the harmful side effects. Some people, such as those who have a history of drug misuse, are at a higher risk for addiction. Health care providers should regularly monitor and help patients if they suspect any form of potential addiction.
Before prescribing opioids for any type of pain management, providers should work with patients to develop a detailed treatment plan. Patients can share more about the type of pain they’re feeling, their health history, and their ultimate treatment goals.
Taking opioid medicines safely and effectively
It’s important patients take medication exactly as directed to ensure it is working properly. This also lowers the chances of side effects and overdose.
Providers should encourage patients to:
- Not take someone else’s opioids or share theirs with others
- Be aware of medication interactions as certain medicines can be dangerous, even sometimes fatal, when used with opioids
- Consult a pharmacist to ensure no adverse reactions occur
- Properly store and dispose of opioids, which will help prevent theft and protect others from taking the medicine accidentally
Educating patients about the risks of opioids is a helpful step in preventing escalation of the current crisis. We encourage patients to talk to their doctors about alternative treatment methods before filling a prescription. It’s important to remember that often times there are other medications that may work just as well.
1 Overdose Deaths Accelerating During COVID-19. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. July 15, 2020. https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2020/p1218-overdose-deaths-covid-19.html. Accessed June 22, 2021.