Opioids for Pain Management: An Addiction Crisis

Opioids for Pain Management: An Addiction Crisis

From back pain to lingering knee issues to sports injuries, more than one in three Americans deal with chronic or severe pain (ouch!). It makes sense, then, that patients often turn to physicians for prescription help when over-the-counter pain relievers don’t quite do the trick. But, with a slew of physicians prescribing opioids for pain management starting in the 1990s, our country quickly began to fall into an addiction crisis—and, by 2017, 47,000 people that year alone had died as a result of opioid overdoses. Today, then, we’re talking all you need to know about opioids for pain management—what they are, how addictive they are, and what alternatives you can turn to instead.

What are opioids?

Opioids are a class of substances that bind to opioid receptors in the human body. They’re derived from opium, which is found in the poppy plant. The term “opioids” includes illegal substances (like heroin), as well as legal prescription drugs (like OxyContin, Vicodin, morphine, and hydrocodone).

opioids for pain management

Are you at risk for addiction?

The fact that opioid painkillers are legal and prescribed by physicians can provide patients a false sense of security that they’re completely safe. There may be the perception that the only people at risk for opioid addiction are those who use illegal opioids, like heroin—but using legal opioids for pain management also comes with a high risk of addiction. Misuse of prescription opioids for pain management (taking more than you’re prescribed, taking them more frequently than you’re prescribed, or taking them from others when they weren’t prescribed to you) is a major part of the opioid addiction crisis. In fact, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, roughly 21-29% of patients who are prescribed opioids for pain management end up misusing them and the number of people who die from prescription opioid overdoses exceeds the number of people who die from heroin and cocaine overdoses combined.  

What if you’re only taking opioids for pain management  for a short period of time?

Patients are often prescribed opioids for pain management for a very legitimate reasons—debilitating back pain, for example–but the problem is, no matter how good a patient’s intentions were when he or she started taking opioid painkillers, prescription opioids become highly addictive even after just taking them for a short period of time. Developing a long-term dependency, then, is a major risk for patients. In fact, according to Truth.com, “The likelihood of using opioid painkillers long-term spikes after just five days of use.”

Think about that for a second. After just five days of use, your risk for becoming long-term dependent on opioids for pain management spikes. Couple this with the fact that more than 130 people die every day from opioid overdoses in the United States—and it’s clear to see that opioids are highly addictive substances that put even the most well-intentioned users at a major, and often fatal, risk for dependency. In fact, as of 2016, an estimated 2.1 million people in the United States had a substance use disorder related to prescription opioids.

opioids for pain management

Are there effective alternatives to opioids for pain management?

Because of the opioid addiction crisis, the CDC recently revised its guidelines for prescribing opioids for chronic pain—causing physicians across the U.S. to limit, or even altogether withhold, prescription opioids. If you’re someone who relies on opioids for pain management, the good news is there are far less addictive pain management options, including:

  • Over-the-counter medications: Ibuprofen, acetaminophen, aspirin, and steroids are all safe alternatives to opioid painkillers. While they aren’t nearly as “strong”—when combined with other pain-management methods, they can certainly be effective.
  • Medical marijuana: From CBD tinctures and specially-formulated CBD pain-relieving lotions and creams, to strains of medical marijuana specifically designed to offer pain relief, many patients are opting to use medical marijuana as a non-addictive substitute for highly addictive opioid painkillers—or to wean themselves off of prescription opioids.
  • Pain management specialists: Finding a pain management specialist in your area who can specifically tailor a plan to suit your unique needs is another healthy alternative to using opioids for pain management.
  • Wellness techniques: From mindfulness training to yoga classes to daily exercise, there are a number of wellness techniques and practices that have been proven to reduce pain without the use of prescription drugs or substances.

Overall, while opioids for pain management were once the go-to in America—they’re now being monitored closely and prescribed with far more caution. While they might seem like a simple solution for managing intense pain for a few days, their highly addictive nature can turn even the most well-meaning patient into a dependent user. If you’re seeking pain-management solutions, be sure to talk to your doctor about your concerns and explore opioid alternatives with her. Or, if you or someone you know is at risk for or has developed an opioid-use disorder, turn to community resources for help.