Lost in the headlines about the opioid crisis is the fact that painkillers can help treat serious health conditions and improve the quality of life for individuals experiencing moderate to extreme pain. Used properly, under the supervision of a physician, opioids have helped many people deal with chronic health problems.
Trained health care professionals evaluate the benefits and risks associated with painkillers and monitor the dosage to make sure the minimum effective amount is taken. However, there are side effects to the long-term use of pain medication. That’s why it’s important to consult with your doctor to find the solution for chronic pain that best fits your needs.
Opioids for Pain
Opioids are a class of pain relief medication that includes prescription drugs and street drugs such as heroin. They’re called opioids because they come from the opium poppy plant. Opioids are sold under brand names such as OxyContin, Vicodin and Lorcet. These drugs are effective in reducing moderate to severe pain, and their side effects can include feelings of relaxation, happiness and even euphoria.
How do opioids work?
Opioids work by attaching to receptors in the nervous system and gastrointestinal tract. This blocks pain signals sent from the brain to the body, helping to reduce severe pain. There are also street drugs, such as heroin, that fall into the opioid category. Nonprescription opioids are dangerous to take because there’s no guarantee of the exact dosage and illegal drugs may be adulterated with harmful substances.
Are opioids intended for long-term use?
Opioids are the big guns of pain treatment, and they’re often used in conjunction with other therapies. In some cases, an opioid can be the best drug for chronic pain if it’s used strictly as prescribed and with continuous medical supervision. In other cases, safe pain medication alternatives better suited to long-term pain management can help achieve the same results.
How long is an opioid medication typically prescribed for pain?
Physicians who prescribe opioids for chronic pain balance a patient’s safety with the need for pain relief. Finding an effective treatment for chronic pain can have a positive impact on the quality of life by increasing mobility, alleviating discomfort and helping prevent health conditions caused by unrelenting pain. Physicians generally prescribe opioids for days or weeks, only prescribing them for longer periods in certain cases.
Abuse of Opioids
An opioid drug can be useful for treating pain on a limited basis. Well-managed opioid use, with the dosage taken exactly as prescribed, can be a tool for managing pain effectively short term with few instances of addiction. The problem with opioids is that not everyone takes them as directed. Using painkillers prescribed for someone else or taking more than directed is a major health risk.
An epidemic of opioid use and misuse has developed over the past two decades. There were 22 times more deaths involving synthetic opioids like fentanyl in 2017 than in 2002. People using opioids have died in their sleep due to taking more than prescribed. Others have developed opioid use disorder, or addiction to opioids, accompanied by behavioral and physical changes.
Five Long-Term Opioid Use Side Effects
When prescribing an opioid drug for pain, your doctor will evaluate the risks and benefits, including possible side effects. Each prescription is tailored to one individual with a unique medical history. It’s dangerous to take an opioid medication prescribed for someone else because the same dose can affect each person very differently. It’s also vital to keep opioid medications away from children because an adult dose could be fatal to a child.
The five most common long-term opioid use side effects are:
- Nausea, vomiting and dry mouth
- Drowsiness and dizziness
- Suppressed breathing
Suppressed breathing contributes to accidental deaths from opioid overdoses because it can cause hypoxia, or a lack of oxygen reaching the brain. This can also lead to physical and neurological problems if it continues long term. It’s vital for a person taking painkillers for more than a short time to be monitored by a physician for signs of these effects.
Increased Tolerance and Dependence
The longer you take an opioid drug, the greater the possibility of developing a tolerance to the medication. This means the original dose doesn’t provide the same effects anymore and a higher dose is needed for pain relief. Some people start to take higher doses to get the same relief, unwittingly becoming dependent on opioids.
The effects of opioids are also dependent on health conditions and other medications taken by the user, including over-the-counter drugs. High levels of tolerance and dependence can turn into opioid addiction, and the risks are too great to continue this misuse long term.
Complementary and Alternative Treatments
Long-term opioid use side effects are minimized when painkillers are used appropriately and in conjunction with therapies such as exercise, physical therapy, massage and acupuncture. New pain relief technologies are emerging as well, including electrical stimulation and the use of radio waves to treat pain.
Complementary pain relief drugs include:
- Anesthetic lotions, gels and patches, such as Lidocaine and muscle relaxants
- Nerve pain medications, including Lyrica and Neuraptine
- Pain management interventions, such as localized steroid shots and nerve blocks
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), including Advil, Motrin and Aleve
- Antidepressants such as Effexor, Cymbalta and Savella
Preventing Opioid Addiction
It’s important to disclose any family history of addiction to your doctor because it could indicate you’re predisposed to become dependent on opioids. In that case, your physician might prescribe only a short course of treatment with an opioid drug, followed by a transition to other pain relief measures.
If you’re taking an opioid for pain management, it’s vital to self-monitor for symptoms of opioid use disorder. If you’re experiencing disruptions in your sleep habits, severe cravings, diminished libido or weight loss, it may be a sign you need help. For those who’ve become dependent on opioids, help is available.
Treatment for Opioid Use Disorder
It’s almost impossible to beat opioid addiction alone. If you’re unable to stop taking opioids, you have plenty of company, because they can be highly addictive. At FHE Health, we’ll work with you to break your addiction permanently with drug treatments, counseling and other therapies.
Medically supervised detox for opioid addiction will give you the support you need to kick the habit. Call one of our compassionate FHE counselors today at (833) 596-3502. You don’t have to go through this struggle alone.