Following your doctor’s strict instructions is essential.
Opioid use and chronic pain are two things that are unfortunately interrelated. In 2019, nearly 50,000 individuals died from opioid-involved overdoses, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. People who live with chronic pain may be more likely than the average person to need pain-relieving medicines like opioids.
This puts the medical community in a hard place. They want to help people who live with chronic pain, but taking opioids for a long period of time comes with the risk of tolerance, dependence, and eventually addiction. Find out how someone becomes addicted to opioids here.
Chronic Pain and Opioids
If you go to your doctor experiencing severe pain, you may receive a prescription for an opioid. These are still some of the best medicines for relieving pain. For example, prescription opioids may be crucial if you have a kidney stone or are recovering from a major surgery.
For people with chronic pain, however, they may have severe pain that never goes away. The danger here is that opioids are only meant to be taken for a short period of time. The longer you take them, you have a higher risk of developing a:
- Tolerance, which is when the body needs more opioids to create the desired effect
- Dependence, which is when the body adapts to the presence of opioids, so you experience withdrawals if you stop taking them
- Addiction, which is when the intense need to continue using opioids gets in the way of your health, safety, relationships, and daily functioning
A person with chronic pain is constantly in pain. Therefore, they continually need something to help them feel better for weeks, months, or years at a time. This can lead to opioid use disorder.
When their prescription ends, they may go to dangerous lengths to receive more opioids in risky ways. Opioids sold on the street may contain additives or be laced with other drugs. These unregulated opioids increase the risk of overdose, which can be fatal. Even if they avoid overdosing, they will end up spending a lot of time, money, and resources seeking out more opioids, which can significantly impact their quality of life.
Alternative Treatment Methods
Luckily, doctors are increasingly turning to other options to help people manage their chronic pain. To help prevent any kind of misuse, alternative options include:
- Physical therapy
Most importantly, if your doctor prescribes an opioid, you should be knowledgeable about the instructions and how to take your opioid. Ask your doctor lots of questions and don’t be afraid of “sounding stupid.” Finally, if you or someone close to you might be experiencing signs of opioid use disorder, please let a healthcare professional know.
Dr. Avery is the director of Addiction Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital.
- Overdose Death Rates. Bethesda, MD: National Institute on Drug Abuse. (Accessed May 3, 2021).
- Understanding Drug Use and Addiction DrugFacts. Bethesda, MD: National Institute on Drug Abuse. (Accessed May 3, 2021).
- Prescription Opioids DrugFacts. Bethesda, MD: National Institute on Drug Abuse. (Accessed May 3, 2021).
- Chronic Pain Management and Opioid Misuse: A Public Health Concern. Leawood, KS: American Academy of Family Physicians. (Accessed May 3, 2021).
- Opioid Use Disorder. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association. (Accessed April 3, 2021).