Chronic pain can limit your quality of life and lead to additional, serious health problems. Finding effective treatment is important — as is balancing pain relief with your safety.
Chronic pain is a serious health condition. Like any long-term health problem, the condition often leads to complications beyond your physical symptoms, such as new or worsened depression, anxiety, and difficulty sleeping. Chronic pain can make it more difficult to keep up at work, manage tasks at home and attend social gatherings, leading to problems in your relationships and financial instability. Some research suggests that the more severe your pain, the more serious these problems are.
The serious consequences of chronic pain make finding effective treatment a critical goal. Unfortunately, this process is complex and uniquely personal. What works for one person’s chronic low back pain may not offer any relief for your osteoarthritis, for a number of reasons. Your diagnosis, biology, and personal history all play a role, and finding pain therapies that bring you adequate relief can be a lengthy effort.
Working in partnership with your doctor, however, you can identify treatments that allow you to live an enjoyable, fulfilling life. The approach you choose should include more than just medication, but painkillers are likely to play a role. Learn about the risks and benefits of common pain medications so that you can make safe choices as you seek your solution.
Opioid medications are synthetic cousins of opium and the drugs derived from opium, such as heroin and morphine. These drugs are often prescribed for acute pain that stems from traumatic injuries, such as surgery or a broken bone. Opioids currently cause the most prescription drug-related overdose deaths in the United States — and that rate is still rising. Because the risks are so great, opioids are used at the lowest dose possible, usually for just a few days.
Generic (brand) names. Hydrocodone (Hysingla ER, Zohydro ER); hydrocodone-acetaminophen (Norco, Anexsia 5/325, others); fentanyl (Actiq, Duragesic-100, others), oxycodone (OxyContin, Roxicodone, others); oxycodone-acetaminophen (Percocet, Roxicet, others); others
How they work. Opioids, just like real opium, mimic the natural pain-relieving chemicals — called endorphins — produced by your brain. These drugs “turn down the volume” on the pain signals your nervous system sends through your body. They also muffle other nerve cell functions, such as your breathing, heart rate, and level of alertness.
Benefits and risks. Research shows that over time, your body adapts to these medications, and they bring less and less pain relief. This phenomenon, known as tolerance, means that you need more of the same medication to achieve the same degree of pain relief. Long-term use of opioids may lead to dependence on these medications and, eventually, addiction.
The longer you use opioids, the greater your risk of becoming addicted. However, even using opioids to manage pain for more than a few days increases your risk. Researchers at Mayo Clinic have found that the odds you’ll still be on opioids a year after starting a short course increase after only five days on opioids.
Bottom line. Opioids are a last resort for chronic pain management. They may be the right choice for long-term pain related to cancer and its treatments or, in rare cases, noncancer pain that hasn’t responded to any other medications. Because the risks are so serious, you’ll need careful and frequent follow-ups with your doctor if you use opioids long-term.
While there isn’t a cure for chronic pain, many effective pain medications are available to help you function effectively and enjoy your days. As you try different drugs, alone or in combination, work with your doctor to target the simplest long-term solution possible. Keep your medication risks to a minimum to improve your odds of many good days, for many years to come.