Medically Reviewed by Beth Hendrickson, RN
If you have chronic pain, you know how difficult it can be to live normally without the help of strong prescription medications. For this reason, opioids and chronic pain often go hand-in-hand. Approximately one out of every five people suffering with chronic pain requests an opioid prescription from his or her doctor. While these prescriptions can be useful for managing short-term issues, they may not always be the best solution in the long term. Before you start taking narcotics to manage your pain, it’s important to carefully consider whether or not they are the right treatment choice for your situation.
Understanding Chronic Pain
Chronic pain is one of the top reasons patients visit the doctor. There are many factors that can contribute to this condition, including underlying diseases, poor nutrition, genetic abnormalities and injuries. In order for pain to be diagnosed as chronic, it must last longer than 12 weeks.
Chronic pain is often managed with medications, including opioids. However, before you request an opioid prescription from your doctor, it’s important to make sure you understand the pros and cons of pain management and opioids. Discuss all your medication options with your doctor so you can make a wise and informed decision regarding your treatment needs.
What Are Opioids?
Opioids are a common class of pain-relieving drugs also referred to as narcotics. The two most common types prescribed are oxycodone (Percocet, OxyContin and generic) and hydrocodone (Vicodin and generic). These types of drugs interact with your brain cells’ opioid receptors to relieve pain and enhance pleasurable feelings. They are frequently prescribed for short-term, acute pain such as the type you feel after surgery. When used on a short-term basis, they are generally safe and effective. However, there are risks when these drugs are used incorrectly. For best results and to avoid the potential dangers of excessive drug use, you should always take narcotics as directed by your doctor.
Cons of Opioid Treatment
There is a reason pain management and opioids are often discussed together. Opioid prescriptions are very effective for the management of short-term pain. However, misuse of these drugs can lead to very serious consequences. Here are a few of the potential cons associated with narcotic treatment for chronic pain:
- Addiction: With long-term use, the body begins to get used to opioids and requires higher doses to get the same level of pain relief. This is one of the reasons these drugs may not be the best solution for chronic (long-term) pain. It’s also the reason why addiction and chronic pain are common problems associated with the over-prescribing of these types of drugs.
- Undesirable side effects: Another potential drawback of narcotic use is the development of undesirable side effects, including sexual dysfunction, depression, gastrointestinal issues, hormone imbalance and cardiovascular issues. Prolonged use of these drugs can also increase your sensitivity to pain according to case reports. This increased pain sensitivity is hard to differentiate from opioid tolerance. Long-term use can also lead to having to take higher doses, which can increase your risk of serious side effects or death.
- Death: When narcotics are taken at the prescribed low doses, they can induce feelings of pleasure and sleepiness that may be helpful when recovering from surgery or other medical procedures. However, higher doses can cause your heart rate and breathing to slow down significantly, with potentially dangerous or fatal consequences. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that escalating opioid use is responsible for more than 200,000 deaths from 1999 to 2016. Of the opioid-related deaths that occurred in 2016, more than 40 percent involved prescription narcotics.