By far, the most common reason for the prescription of opioids is pain management. Initially intended to help terminal cancer patients deal with severe levels of discomfort, medications like hydrocodone and oxycodone have since become popular with those who suffer from chronic pain. But what are the side effects of long-term opioid use? Recent research suggests that taking these medications over an extended period of time may actually worsen chronic pain.
New evidence shows that opioids taken over a long period of time can increase the body’s perception of pain. This phenomenon is called opioid-induced hyperalgesia, or OIH. This condition is paradoxical – instead of eliminating a person’s pain, these medications can actually make it feel more intense. In some cases, this may result in a feedback loop in which the patient requires higher and higher dosages to deal with increased pain. If a healthcare provider elects to prescribe more medication, the risk of addiction and overdose multiplies exponentially.
While more research is still necessary, we do know some concrete facts about OIH:
- Treating pain with high dosages of opioids can worsen that pain at a later date.
- People taking opioids for chronic conditions may have increased levels of postoperative pain, even when they receive higher dosages of opioids.
- People who use opiates (or have used them in the past) may have increased pain responses to ordinary procedures, such as having one’s blood drawn.
This information may seem counterintuitive, but once you understand how opioids function within the brain, the risk of hyperalgesia begins to make sense.
How Opioids Worsen Pain
We all experience pain in some form or fashion; it’s the body’s way of letting us know that something is wrong and requires treatment. Chronic pain is different. In these cases, a person’s body aches for months or years at a time, even when there is no specific cause.
In Western medicine, it’s common to think that a pill can be the solution to every ailment. Unfortunately, this line of thinking can make things worse for people dealing with chronic pain. How do these medications increase your sensitivity to your body’s signals?
Opioids work by blocking pain, but every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Your body reacts to this block by increasing the number of pain receptors, hoping to get the message through to your brain. It’s also known that an acclimation to opioid pain medication can result in lowered levels of natural endorphins, worsening your ability to cope with aches and scrapes on your own.
In addition, taking these pills over time can have unforeseen consequences, such as tolerance, withdrawal, and addiction.
Other Unintended Side Effects
Today, there is perhaps no more controversial drug than the opioid. Over the years, researchers and the general public have grown concerned about using these powerful medications for the long-term treatment of chronic non-cancer pain. These individuals point to safety issues, questionable effectiveness, and the addictive potential of these drugs.
Without a doubt, opioids can quickly catalyze tolerance, dependence, and addiction in patients. Even with proper use and low dosages, these medications are incredibly habit-forming. The term “tolerance” refers to increasing the amount of a substance required to achieve the desired result over time. For example, a person who has been prescribed Vicodin to recover from a back injury may begin by taking just one pill, but after a while, she may find that a second pill is necessary to lessen the pain.
Dependence and addiction are two sides of the same coin. Individuals who have developed a physical dependence on a medication will experience withdrawal symptoms with the abrupt cessation of an opioid. These side effects can be avoided or managed when a person tapers the dosage while under medical supervision. Addiction, on the other hand, is a chronic disease that impacts a person physically, mentally, and spiritually. People who are addicted to these medicines experience cravings, loss of control, compulsive use, and drug-seeking behavior. These side effects can derail a person’s life, putting opioids above everything else. It is vital for those who have developed a dependency or addiction to these drugs to seek professional treatment.
Alternatives to Opioid Pain Medications
Fortunately, there are plenty of alternatives to opioids that exhibit a much lower addictive potential and decreased risk of hyperalgesia. These include over-the-counter remedies like acetaminophen (Tylenol), aspirin (Bayer), ibuprofen (Motrin), and more. Some people may also find that their doctors recommend steroids or other prescribed solutions to chronic pain, like antidepressants, medicated creams and patches, and interventional pain management.
Physical therapies can also be an affordable and energizing option for those with chronic pain. Some self-care techniques, such as applying ice and heat or regularly exercising, are completely free and easy to practice at home. Other services, like acupuncture, massage therapy, and chiropractic adjustments, may provide relief. For those with severe pain levels, physical therapy and psychotherapy should be considered.
Ready to Recover?
At Lakeside-Milam, we understand that opioid pain medications can turn your life upside-down. Our team of experts is standing by to help you begin the journey to lifelong recovery. Through our array of evidence-based therapies and groundbreaking solutions, more than 100,000 people have broken the cycle of addiction within our center. Please contact us today to learn more about our opioid addiction treatment program.