How to Safely Use Opioid Pain Medication

If you read or watch the news you know that New Jersey and the nation is in the grips of an opioid addiction epidemic.  Opioid medications are primarily used for pain management, and opioids, either prescribed or illicit, are the main driver of the dramatic increase in drug overdose deaths.  

Pain relief is important for those who are experiencing severe pain due to surgery, injuries, or illness.  But, the purpose of pain medication is not always to eradicate discomfort, but to allow you to be functional and active.  While addiction only occurs in a small percentage of people who use the strongest medications, opioid medications are highly addictive and should only be prescribed with care and used safely.        

The first step is knowing a little more about pain relief medications.  These medications come in many forms and potencies, are available by prescription or over-the-counter (OTC), and treat various physical pains.  OTC medications relieve minor aches and pains such as headaches, fever, colds, flu, arthritis, toothaches, and menstrual cramps. There are basically two kinds, acetaminophen and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).  Acetaminophen is an active ingredient found in many OTC and prescription medicines, including pain relievers, cough suppressants, and cold medications. NSAIDs are used to relieve fever and minor aches and pains. They include aspirin, naproxen, and ibuprofen, as well as many medicines taken for colds, sinus pressure, and allergies.

Prescription medications are used to alleviate more serious pain and include opioids.  Derived from opium, opioid drugs are very powerful. They act by attaching to a specific “receptor” in the brain, spinal cord, and gastrointestinal tract.  Opioids can change the way a person experiences pain. Commonly abused opioid pain medicines include Codeine, Oxycontin, Vicodin, and Demerol.

Opioid pain medications are effective when used as directed and only for as long as needed, but misuse can be extremely harmful and even deadly.  There are several actions people can take to protect themselves and their children. These include:

  • Following your health care professional’s medication instructions closely.
  • Informing them about any past history of substance abuse.
  • Do not change the dose of your pain relief medication without talking to your doctor first.
  • Never share your medication with anyone else.
  • Store medications where children cannot get them and dispose of unused prescriptions.  Visit www.reachnj.gov to find locations around the state to safely dispose of unused prescription medicines.
  • If there is concern for a friend or family member who uses opioids excessively, talk to your primary care physician about having Narcan available to reverse the effects of overdose.

Using medications without a clear need and just for use “by habit” is a danger sign of addiction, and spending a day trying to get the medication is a warning sign.  Drug use that interferes with judgement, relationships, school, or career are signs of addiction. If there is a concern about substance abuse, don’t deny it, address it by seeking help with a health care professional.  Addiction is a neurobehavioral treatable disease, with emphasis on treatable. Often there are mental health issues that need to be treated at the same time. Keep in mind, recovery is possible with professional support.

Kenneth Faistl, M.D., FAAFP, is board certified in Family Medicine and Addiction Medicine and is on staff at Hackensack Meridian Health Raritan Bay Medical Center.  An advocate for family medicine and holder of a Certificate of Added Qualifications in Geriatrics, Dr. Faistl recently opened a new office at 195 Route 9 South, Suite 106 in Manalapan, NJ.  To make an appointment, call 732-360-3522.

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