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Risks and Rewards of Using Opioids for Chronic Pain Relief

Pouring opioids into a person's hand.

If you suffer from chronic pain, you know that the search for lasting relief is challenging. Chronic pain interferes with your ability to partake in everyday activities and enjoy life on your terms.

When over-the-counter pain relievers fail to manage the pain, there are other solutions, including the use of opioid medications. Are opioids a good choice for your treatment—or do the potential risks outweigh the rewards?

Understanding Chronic Pain

Experts say up to 40% of adult Americans suffer from chronic pain, often delibating. Chronic pain is typically defined as pain that has lasted for more than three months. Any number of conditions, including arthritis, fibromyalgia, sciatica, neuropathy, and spinal herniation, can cause chronic pain. You suffer chronic pain in any area of your body, including your back, neck, and limbs.

Acute pain can often be treated with analgesics and over-the-counter medications, but chronic pain is not always as easily treated. Chronic pain often requires different, more powerful treatment, including the use of opioids to reduce the effects of the pain.

How Opioids Work

Opioids are a class of drugs that work by attaching themselves to opioid receptors in the brain and other areas of the body. In doing so, opioids block the body’s pain signals from being sent to the brain, thus masking such pain. They also release large amounts of dopamine throughout the body, which can make people feel relaxed and happy.

Popular opioids include hydrocodone (Vicodin), oxycodone (OxyContin, Percocet), oxymorphone (Opana), morphine, codeine, fentanyl, and heroin. Because of their potency and addictive properties, opioids are classified by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) as controlled substances. Possession of controlled substances without a physician’s prescription is illegal.

Are Opioids Effective in Relieving Chronic Pain?

Pain experts know that opioids can be highly effective in blocking the persistent effects of chronic pain. The providers at Valley Medical and Wellness agree that if opioids are taken in prescribed doses and as instructed, they can help patients suffering from severe and chronic pain.

When opioids are used for an extended period to manage long-term pain, however, patients are at risk of developing an opioid addiction. Addiction can also happen if illegal opioids are taken without a physician’s supervision. For this reason, opioids are best taken only under the strict supervision of a doctor.

What Are the Risks of Using Opioids to Treat Chronic Pain?

Opioid use, even when prescribed by a physician, carries with it some risk. When not properly managed, the use of opioids to treat chronic pain can result in the following:

These risks increase if the patient has other health conditions such as breathing problems, sleep apnea, liver problems, or kidney problems.

In addition, patients who use opioids to treat chronic pain may, over time, develop a tolerance to the drug. This could result in needing higher doses to maintain the same level of pain release, which can also increase the risk of opioid dependence and addiction.

Opioid withdrawal is another issue that patients must deal with. If an individual suddenly stops using an opioid, they can suffer withdrawal symptoms, including anxiety, insomnia, muscle aches, and sweating. Discontinuing opioid use, then, requires a gradual tapering of the drug’s intake.

Prescribing Opioids Safely and Responsibly

Opioid addiction, especially among illegal drug users, is a significant problem. According to the National Institute of Health, more than 2.1 million Americans (and more than 16 million people worldwide) suffer from opioid use disorder, resulting in more than 120,000 deaths worldwide annually. Knowing this, how can opioids be used safely to relieve chronic pain?

One way to reduce the risks associated with opioid use is to control precisely the dosage of opioids prescribed. By considering each patient’s genetic makeup, lifestyle, and susceptibility to side effects, physicians can prescribe the proper dosage that maximizes relief while minimizing the potential for addiction and other side effects.

Another approach is to prescribe opioids that have fewer side effects and are less addictive. For example, the drug Suboxone contains the opioid buprenorphine combined with naloxone, a drug typically used to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. Combining these two drugs results in a medication that can be used safely for long periods without the risks of tolerance and dependence associated with other types of opioids.

Valley Medical and Wellness is one of the few clinics in Minnesota to offer Suboxone treatment for both chronic pain and opioid addiction. Patients who have switched to Suboxone from other opioid medications often see impressive results, reduced pain, and improved quality of life. It’s an effective option when used alongside other pain management therapies.

Learn More About How Valley Medical Uses Opioids for Chronic Pain Management

The providers at Valley Medical and Wellness are aware of concerns about using opioids and other medications for pain management and the risks involved. They do everything possible to ensure each patient’s safety and follow all government regulations. While our providers do prescribe opioids for chronic pain, our pain management program is designed to help patients regain maximum function and reduce dependence on opioids. We consider each patient’s specific needs, customize the type and dosage of medication for each patient, and closely monitor each patient’s progress over time.

If you are seeking relief from chronic pain, Valley Medical’s friendly and experienced pain management experts will guide you on your road to a normal life without pain. We have clinics in five convenient locations to serve patients across Minnesota, including Burnsville, Minneapolis, Woodbury, Rochester, and Bemidji. To learn more, call us at (612) 444-3000.

Michael Miller Michael Miller Michael Miller is a Business Process Writer at Valley Medical and Wellness. He's an established writer with more than 200 books and thousands of articles published over the past three decades. He writes on a variety of topics, from healthcare to technology to music. He is also a member of the Interstellar Foundation, dedicated to telling the story of humankind via NASA spacecraft traveling beyond the solar system.

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