Addressing chronic pain often means taking a look at all available treatment options with the help of your doctor, and opioid drugs have long been used, in one form or another, to treat pain.
An opioid is a drug that acts on the nervous system in much the same way as drugs derived directly from opium, such as morphine. After a surgery or acute injury, for example, your doctor may prescribe opioids to help you manage severe pain until you have healed.
Opioids have also been used to treat chronic pain. Some conditions respond better than others to opioid treatments, and there’s healthy debate in the medical community regarding their long-term use. For some patients, however, opioids provide real relief. Like any treatment, there are benefits … and risks.
The Benefits of Opioid Treatment for Severe Pain
While today’s opioids are produced in pharmacological labs, less sophisticated versions (produced from opium) have been around for centuries. The biggest benefit of opioids is that many patients report significant pain relief, even from chronic, severe pain. Opioids come in a wide range of doses, from mild to very strong, allowing some flexibility for treating chronic pain over time. Potential benefits:
- For some patients, opioids may provide both physical and mental relief from severe pain.
- For physical pain, opioids work by limiting the pain signals sent by the patient’s nervous system. Fewer signal may mean less pain.
- Opioids may also diminish the mental aspect of chronic pain, by calming the reaction of the patient’s brain to pain signals from the nervous system.
- Opioids are most commonly used to treat chronic pain in the joints, muscles, and soft tissue. Your doctor may also consider opioid treatment for neuropathic pain.
The Risks of Opioid Treatment for Severe Pain
Opioid risks can be broken down into dependence, and potential adverse reactions. Taking opioids may increase your chance of developing an addiction, especially if you have family members with a history of substance abuse. Adverse reactions range from relatively mild side-effects that may diminish over time to potentially dangerous conditions.
- Long-term opioid treatment may involve increases in dose, as your body builds tolerance. In some patients, regular use may lead to physical or psychological dependence.
- Physical dependence is a key element of addiction, and may be characterized by withdrawal symptoms when not taking the medication. If you believe you have developed physical dependence, it is important to speak with your doctor as soon as possible.
- The risk of addiction may be managed – but not eliminated entirely – by taking opioid medications exactly as prescribed.
- Opioids may also cause common side-effects, including dry mouth, constipation, drowsiness, and nausea.
- Mild side-effects may diminish over time, or your doctor may help manage them by making some minor changes to your treatment.
The pain-relief benefits of opioids may be significant for severe pain, but it’s important to consider the risks, as well. If you have a history of substance abuse or a significant adverse reaction to opioid treatment, your doctor may be able to offer a different solution. As with any type of treatment for chronic, severe pain, it’s important to speak with your doctor about the risks and benefits of opioid treatment.