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The opioid crisis in the US may have its roots in doctors overprescribing pain meds.

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If you’ve ever had surgery, experienced a serious injury or suffer from a long-term condition that causes chronic pain, chances are that your doctor may have prescribed a powerful opioid (narcotic) painkiller to help combat the pain and discomfort.

Although these medicines, including codeine, hydrocodone, oxycodone and fentanyl, can offer welcome relief in the short-term, they can also be very dangerous if they’re abused, either accidentally or knowingly. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that at least one-third of the estimated 60,000+ opioid overdose deaths per year in the U.S. occur in people who were prescribed the painkillers by their doctor.

“We now try to limit opioid pain killers to acute illnesses that do not respond to other methods, post op, or to those with terminal illnesses. Before taking OTC pain killers, or doing other alternative pain killing methods, one should discuss options with a physician to make sure it is safe for them to use.”

-Dr. Ricky C. Winburn, Internal Medicine

Misusing or overusing painkillers can cause:

      • Nausea
      • Dizziness
      • Drowsiness
      • Itching
      • Sweating
      • Depression
      • A weakened immune system
      • Compromised (slow) breathing, which can lead to respiratory failure
      • Tolerance, which means the prescribed dose is no longer effective and you need more of the drug to get the desired effect
      • Dependence, which means your body is so accustomed to having the drug that you experience unpleasant withdrawal symptoms if you don’t take it regularly or stop taking it abruptly
      • Addiction, resulting in an all-encompassing desire for the drug that negatively affects all areas of your life – your body craves the drug because of the “high” feeling it produces
      • A cross-over addiction – according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, nearly 80% of heroin addicts first abused prescription painkillers

Although there are times when it’s difficult to avoid using prescribed painkillers, it’s important to recognize that there are dangers to doing so. If you’ve been prescribed painkillers but you’re nervous about taking them or want to make sure you don’t become a statistic in the nation’s opioid crisis, here are some tips to help ensure you use them safely:

    1. Talk to your doctor about your concerns. Ask any questions you might have and be sure to mention any other prescription or over-the-counter (OTC) drugs or supplements you’re currently taking. Be sure to review the list with your doctor, even if you think the information is updated in your chart.
    2. Take your pills EXACTLY as directed. Be sure you know how much to take, how often, and how to take your medicine (for example, always take it with food if it says to on the label). Don’t take more than you should or take it longer than prescribed. Review the informational insert that comes with the prescription because it might list risks or possible interactions you should be aware of.
    3. Keep a medicine journal. Make notes about when you take your meds and how they make you feel. Also note your pain level before each dose, and when (or if) your pain subsided.
    4. Follow up with your doctor. Prescription painkillers are only meant to be taken for a short time, usually for no more than three or four weeks. When you run out, talk honestly with your doctor about whether you really need a refill and be sure to mention any side effects or other issues you experienced while taking them. Bring your medicine journal with you to your appointment if you need to remember anything.
    5. Switch to OTC pain remedies. Use medications like acetaminophen or ibuprofen when possible instead of prescription pain meds. You should still be cautious when using these, however, as they can also be dangerous if not used correctly or if used with other OTC medicines. Always follow the dosage instructions carefully and don’t use longer than you have to.
    6. Explore other methods of pain relief. During the first few days following surgery or an injury, prescription painkillers may be the only way to combat your pain. But after that, one way to avoid any problems that may arise due to prescription or OTC pain meds is to try other proven methods of relief, like massage, acupuncture, behavioral therapy, physical therapy or exercise.

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Date Last Reviewed: January 14, 2021

Editorial Review: Andrea Cohen, Editorial Director, Baldwin Publishing, Inc. Contact Editor

Medical Review: Perry Pitkow, MD

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