For a number of years, prescribing opioids to individuals suffering with chronic pain was the gold standard of pain management. As time wore on however, it became apparent in the medical community that these drugs were creating a dependency in patients, opening Pandora’s box on the lasting impact of opioid addiction on patient lives.
To combat these prescribing measures, the CDC released new guidelines as recently as 2016, cautioning against the overuse of these medications. Unfortunately for many, the opioid cycle had already begun.
This leaves many of us in the interesting position of needing to know what the long term side effects are from frequently taking pain medication, in addition to finding healthier, non-habit forming alternatives to manage a life lived with chronic pain.
Why Opioids Became Popular
Opioid painkillers became a popular choice of medication for their efficacy in relieving pain originating from the muscles. This makes opioids a fast acting method for alleviating mild to moderate pain associated with common injuries such as pack problems and post surgical discomfort. Their versatility also allowed for pain relief of even severe ailments so long as the medications were taken at higher doses.
The main concern when engaging in any kind of opioid pain treatment, however, is dependency. More than many other pain medicines, opioids have a tendency to create dependency in their users thus resulting in several adverse effects over time. As dependency increases, so does the risk for accidental overdose.
The Difference Between Dependency and Addiction
One of the most troubling side effects of opioid medications is the way in which the body builds tolerance to them over time. This places patients and care providers in a position where medication doses need to be regularly increased, thus leading to physical dependency and, potentially, addiction.
While sometimes used interchangeably, these two terms do not indicate the same kind of challenge.
In physical dependence, you see the body acclimate to the current dosage. For the opioid to have the same pain killing effect over time, the dose thus has to be raised on a regular basis.
In addiction, also called psychological dependence, the person begins to rely on the drug for reasons outside of pain relief. This can look like a method of escape or withdrawal from reality, or, more subtly, taking the medication to help with emotional regulation. In addiction, taking the medication is no longer about pain, it’s about needing the substance to feel “normal.”
Tapering Off of Opiods
If you have not crossed into the realm of psychological dependency, weaning off opioids is possible with the help of your primary care provider.
Due to the sometimes severe and uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms of opioids, the medication will need to be reduced gradually and over a long period of time.
As outlined by the CDC, the general protocol for reducing opioid consumption is a reduction of 10% each month. During the tapering process, be mindful of any physical or psychological symptoms of withdrawal. While its never recommended to reverse the taper, you can always decrease the taper amount, pause it entirely, and find alternate modalities to help support your condition.
Non-Opioid Solutions: Side Effects of Pain Medications
While opioids are the beginning point of many people’s pain relief journey, they are not the only available options. It’s important to talk to your doctor about what other pain management methods to find the best treatment method for you. When making this determination, it is important to take the various side effects into account. See below for a list of adverse effects from common painkillers.
Working by activating the opioid receptors of the brain, these painkillers are good for muscular discomfort and pain cause my health problems such as osteoarthritis.
Side effects include:
- withdrawal symptoms
- Shortness of breath
This medication works by increasing individual pain thresholds, making a person more resistant to pain. Additionally, acetaminophen can be used as a fever reduction tool.
Side effects include:
- bowl upset
- Liver damage
While NSAIDs block the overall pain receptors in the body, they have the added benefit of acting as an anti-inflammatory agent.
Side effects include:
- Increased risk of heart attack or stroke
- Stomach pain and ulcers
- Liver or kidney damages
- Rebound headaches
Keep in mind that even with over the counter medications, drug interactions can occur, potentially reducing the efficacy of your current medications or creating a medical emergency.
Alternative Pain Treatments
Most individuals begin their pain management journey believing they are only able to take one course of action. As the pain persists and the side effects of various medications become apparent, individuals may want to know if, and which, alternative treatments exist for pain control.
While these alternative treatments are not always enough to completely eradicate pain, they are worthwhile additions to the regular course of pain management and can serve as complementary or supplementary care that helps you regain your quality of life.
Acupuncture is an ancient treatment developed in China around 100 BCE. From that point forward, the use of this chinese medicine has been a staple in medical circles for a variety of purposes ranging from anxiety, tension, and chronic pain.
The process of acupuncture involvs taking several small needles and sticking them into the skin along various pressure points in the body. These points correspond with nerves which help promote the release of tension and thus the management of pain.
For additional support, these needles are sometimes manipulated with heat or electricity, thus intensifying and changing their overall effect.
Similar to acupuncture, massage therapy seeks to relax muscles and sooth nerves through direct manipulation as a way of reducing pain.
Physical Therapy and Occupational Therapy
Used in conjunction with other methods of pain management, these treatments can help an individual get back to their normal method of functioning by re-strengthening both the injured muscle and the surrounding supportive tissue.
Arizona Based Pain Management Experts
Looking for a pain specialist to either shift, manage, or monitor your medications is an important part of your health care and healing journey.
The Arizona Pain and Spine Institute boasts a full team of seasoned professionals who specialize in minimally invasive and clinically proven modalities to help manage both long and short-term pain. We make a point to stay on the cutting edge of new technologies to help reduce pain and increase quality of life.