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What Are Opioids?

Opioids have been around for decades. They’re drugs often prescribed by doctors to treat severe or chronic pain. However, their use in recent years has grown increasingly problematic, especially in the USA which is experiencing an opioid abuse crisis. As a result, doctors are being encouraged to prescribe opioids less often.

Most of the time, the patients who require opioids experience chronic pain such as headaches or backaches, severe pain that’s associated with late stages of cancer, or pain caused by severe injuries such as car accidents or falls.

If you or your loved one have been prescribed opioids, it’s important to know how they work and how to avoid developing an addiction.

Most Commonly Used Opioids

Opioids can be naturally derived from plants, or be wholly or semi-synthetic. Some of them are incredibly deadly, or addiction-inducing, so proper care is paramount to avoid the adverse effects. There are plenty of types of prescribed and illicit opioids, and some of the most common are:

  • Morphine and codeine — naturally derived;
  • Hydrocodone and oxycodone — semi-synthetic, sold under brand names Vicodin and Percocet;
  • Fentanyl — fully synthetic and much stronger than morphine;
  • Methadone — fully synthetic, used as opioid addiction treatment by heroin addicts going through withdrawal;
  • Heroin — an illegal opioid not used in medicine.

Depending on the level of pain, doctors may prescribe opioids of different strengths and administration methods. Opioids can be found in pill form, as well as be taken as lollipops or lozenges. Intravenous administration of opioids is also an option, as well as using a suppository or a patch.

Side Effects of Opioids

Opioids bind to the brain and spinal cord receptors and block pain signals in the brain. However, that’s not the only effect they have — opioids also stimulate the release of dopamine, as well as disrupt the brain’s capability to control its reward-seeking mechanisms. It is what makes addiction possible, which is one of the most severe side effects of taking opioids.

Other side effects include nausea, constipation or sleepiness. However, if you’re suddenly taking shallow breaths, losing consciousness or suffering through a slowed heart rate, you might be experiencing an opioid overdose. Furthermore, a sudden stop in taking opioids can result in insomnia or nervousness.

Patients sometimes develop a tolerance to opioids over time, which can lead to doctors prescribing them a more significant dose. However, caution is necessary, as this can result in addiction as well. Millions of Americans have already walked down that road. Opioids claim more than 115 lives every day in the U.S. and with that number growing, the trend is likely to continue.

Managing Pain Responsibly

The first step once opioid prescription becomes an option is talking to your physician. They need to be filled in on your history of using opioids and other substances and their effect on you. Make sure to mention any past cases of substance abuse, since individuals who abuse alcohol when they’re younger are often more susceptible to later abusing opioids.

Take the opioids only as your physician instructs you, and make sure to check the prescription label for more information about whether it’s safe to use with other medications.

Finally, always contact your doctor in case of experiencing any opioid overdose symptoms.

Pain Management Alternatives

Since using opioids can cause addiction, it is recommended to seek alternatives for safely managing pain. Also, sometimes opioids can’t completely block off your pain, so you could also use them in combination with other therapies.

With combination therapy, opioids are prescribed with other medications or treatments that don’t involve medication. The physician’s goal with this type of treatment is to improve pain management and make it so that the patient doesn’t require a hefty dose of opioids.

Alternative therapies might also be useful — acupuncture, massages, biofeedback or meditation are among the commonly used techniques for healing without medication. Of course, these also include interventional therapies. A surgical procedure such as a nerve block or removal of the nerve causing the pain can do the pain-relieving work.

For nerve pain and muscle spasms, injections of medications such as local anesthetics could also help. Spinal cord stimulation is also an option for the patients who suffer from chronic back pain, as well as those patients who experience pains in their arms and legs. The procedure involves implanting a device into the patient’s back. The device blocks the pain by stimulating the patient’s spinal cord and nerves with electric pulses.

Dangers of Stopping with Opioids Suddenly

It’s better not to stop using opioids suddenly, because that can cause side effects and withdrawal symptoms, depending on how long the patient had been using them. Instead, it’s recommended for the patients to wean themselves off of opioids gradually.

Some of the milder symptoms you might experience if you suddenly stop taking opioids are insomnia and jittery nerves. Other, more serious ones, fall under withdrawal symptoms and they may include anxiety, abdominal pain, vomiting and diarrhea, tremors, and drug cravings. To avoid these, make sure your physician decreases your dose slowly.

Benefits of Quitting Opioids

Once the treatment is over, and the potential side effects of quitting opioids have been taken care of with the help of a physician anesthesiologist, most patients report positive results. Their function improves, while pain decreases. Most of the time, the patients can start alternative therapies that don’t involve opioids.

The clear benefit of opioid use recovery is that a different therapy usually isn’t so risky, yet just as effective in managing pain. This is where alternative treatments can shine and cure a patient’s pain instead of masking it with opioids.

Pain management is no easy task, especially when highly addictive opioids are involved. As with any medication, patients must make sure they’re using it only as their physician indicates it. It protects them from side effects further down the line and ensures that their pain is managed without causing addiction. With America’s opioid crisis in full swing, it’s become increasingly important to use available medication responsibly and avoid adding more people to the worrisome opioid abuse statistics.

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