The Dangers of Narcotics Use for Pain Management
Natural narcotics have been used since ancient Greece and probably before that era, too. The first opioid medication, morphine, was isolated from opium at the beginning of the 19th century. Since that breakthrough discovery, narcotics have been an instrumental part of our management of pain.
However, narcotics have so many short- and long-term side effects with possible life-threatening risks, you might wonder how safe it is to rely on them.
What are narcotics?
Narcotics, or opioids, are drugs that attach themselves to certain receptors in your brain and block the signal pathways responsible for your experience of the pain sensations. In addition to relieving pain, opioids can cause narcosis, which is sleepiness or stupor, and some people may feel euphoria or elation.
Common opioids include oxycodone, fentanyl, tramadol, hydrocodone, codeine, morphine and methadone. And just to be perfectly clear, all of these drugs must be prescribed to a patient by a doctor; they are not available over the counter at a pharmacy in the United States.
Short-term side effects of opioids include drowsiness, respiratory depression, constipation, nausea, headache, dizziness, confusion and male impotence. Taking more than the proper dose can lead to coma or death from respiratory depression.
Taking opioids for an extended period of time creates a risk of long-term side effects such as chronic constipation, female infertility, liver damage, worsened pain—also known as opioid-induced hyperalgesia—dependence and substance abuse. Dependence doesn't just affect the consumer; babies born to mothers still taking opioids can experience serious withdrawal symptoms when they're born, as well as congenital defects in some cases.
While the discovery of opioids was a medical breakthrough for pain management, actually taking them to manage your pain can be dangerous if not closely monitored by a physician and without a tapering plan.
Over time, your tolerance to an opioid will increase, which means you'll require a larger dose to achieve the same effect that you once got from the original dose. A simple, but reckless path is to increase the dose. However, also bear in mind that narcotics are extremely addictive. So you're now in danger of taking more of a drug that demands your body take more, and more often.
Doctors will not prescribe narcotics to anyone who exhibits dependent behavior, and that may lead you down a route to illegal prescription drug use, risking your life on the efficacy of the illegal drugs available and the now heightened threat of withdrawal, overdose and death.
Though awareness of the risks that opioids pose has become more widespread in recent years, abuse remains a serious issue.
Following the invention of the hypodermic needle by Irish physician Francis Rynd in 1844, narcotics such as morphine began being misused. Heroin—a narcotic five to 10 times more potent than morphine—was first synthesized from morphine in 1874 and produced commercially in 1898. Though initially used for pain control, heroin was later classified as an illegal drug in the U.S. because of its addictiveness.
The world has had problems with opioid addiction and related deaths ever since. Many Americans have been prescribed opioid painkillers for chronic pain, and it's estimated that between 21 and 29 percent misuse them. More than 2 million Americans are dependent upon or abusing prescription painkillers, according to estimates. Research carried out on individuals who have tried heroin found 80 percent of them say they started with prescription painkillers.
Though awareness of the risks that opioids pose has become more widespread in recent years, abuse remains a serious issue. In 2014, 14,000 Americans died from opioid-related overdoses, which was triple the number recorded in 1990. From 2010 to 2012, the mortality rate from heroin overdose doubled in more than half the states in America.
Alternatives for pain management
While there are instances in which opioids are a reasonable choice for short-term pain management, such as recovery from surgery, individuals with milder and/or chronic pain may benefit from alternative options.
Depending on the underlying cause, there is a wide variety of choices to manage pain: over-the-counter medications such as ibuprofen, acetaminophen and aspirin, steroid injections, nerve blocks, transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS), radio waves, acupuncture, massage, biofeedback, heat and cold therapy, exercise and movement, and occupational, rehabilitative or physical therapy.
Form a plan with your doctor
If avoiding opioids is something you're thinking about doing, talk to your doctor about appropriate alternative treatments to maximize your comfort.
If you do need to take opioids for pain, consult your doctor and decide together whether short-term opioid use is safe for you, what you should avoid, and what to look for regarding indicators of dependence. If you become aware of any signs of tolerance or dependence, you should immediately report them to your doctor. Always take pain management medication exactly as prescribed, and never mix opioids with alcohol or any other medications that have not been approved by your doctor.
Finally, never share opioids prescribed for you with anyone else. You could be responsible for their overdose or death.