There is often a lot of talk about the dangers of opioids, but for many people the use of these painkillers is all that is standing between them and debilitating pain. Opioids work by reducing the pain signals that are sent through the nervous system to the brain which causes the body not to experience the intensity of the pain. The controversies over opioids result from the highly addictive nature of the substance. Because the medication changes signals to the brain, it can be habit forming and become easily abused.

Recent studies on risk and opioid medications

Just a few weeks ago, the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons reported on the impact of the use of opioids on orthopedic care in the United States. While the U.S. makes up only a small percentage of the global population it consumes almost 80% of the global opioid supply, according to the study. It accounts for 99% of the consumption of hydrocodone, which is the most commonly prescribed opioid medication in the world. These numbers are astounding and obviously a cause for concern. This may come down to the trust factor between patients and their physicians.

In April the Journal of the International Association for the Study of Pain included a report regarding the percentage of medications that are prescribed and misused. By their calculations between 20-30% of the opioid drugs prescribed as pain therapy are used inappropriately by patients and 10% of these prescriptions lead to addiction. They also believe that these rates of misuse are unique to the United States, which seems to support the findings of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. They also question whether or not benefits of opioid prescriptions outweigh the risks.

Unfortunately, far too much of the research into opioids are due to the negative impact of their misuse. This study into the use of opioid medications among young people was published in March by the American Marketing Association. The authors of the article point out that the Centers for Disease Control have labeled the misused of prescription opioids as an epidemic in this county and some of the most vulnerable victims are teenagers. In the study, the teenagers surveyed were asked not only about their use of drugs and alcohol but also about their anxiety levels, their desire to fit in, and other psychological issues most commonly experienced by people their age. The results showed that the use of prescription drugs increased in proportion to the anxiety levels these teenagers were feeling in their lives.

Back in January the University of Connecticut released a study showing there is a concerning lack of data regarding opioids and chronic pain. The report was based on a white paper published by the National Institutes of Health that indicated that the findings typically cited to justify the use opioid medications for chronic pain patients have very little backing evidence to support them. While there is very little evidence to demonstrate that opioid drugs have very little long-term efficacy for chronic pain, the rates of prescriptions are continuing to increase. Where the results of this study get confusing is that there are pain conditions that are responsive to opioids but others that do not respond to them at all. Doctors, however, often prescribe these medications across the board.

How to reduce your risk

If you have found success with opioid medications, it is extremely important that you have access to the tools that can mitigate your risk of developing a dependence or addiction. Here are some ways for you to keep in mind.

  1. Work with your doctor: Far too many people misuse opioid medications. The body is able to build a tolerance to these drugs so some people will try to take more to compensate for the lack of pain relief. Instead, it is extremely important to talk to your doctor about the changes in your symptoms and how the drug is working.
  2. Recognize signs of overdose: Immediate medical attention is important if you’ve taken too much of these medications. Let your friend and family know some of the signs that they should look for and be able to contact medical help immediately. Here is a comprehensive view on opioid overdoses to keep on file.
  3. Use apps to help you monitor your use: What’s the point of living in the 21st century if you can’t make use of today’s technology? There are multiple apps available for all smart phone platforms that can help you monitor your use of medications and give you reminders of when to take them and how much.
  4. Combine your treatment with alternatives: Some patients have a lot of success reducing the levels of their chronic pain by combining medical treatments with lifestyle changes. Mindful meditation, herbal supplements, exercise, and diet alterations can all have a positive effect on your overall health which then can reduce your dependence on these medications.
  5. Monitor who has access to your medicine cabinet: Sometimes the bigger concern than your own dependence on opioids is the risk of unintentionally providing access to others in your household. If you have teenagers who might be struggling with anxiety make sure you keep your medications in a secure place and talk to your kids about their experiences. Find them the appropriate treatment.

While there are plenty of concerns with opioid medications, there are right and wrong ways to utilize the drug for your treatment program. Work with your doctor, form a plan, and monitor your use and you may be able to successfully use opioids to reduce your chronic pain while avoiding risks of their use.

How can you reduce your risk with opioid medications?

Image by frankieleon via Flickr

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