We’ve all heard the stories: the football player who broke his arm and ended up addicted to opioids and homeless; the mechanic who hurt his back, got hooked on Vicodin and lost his business; the mom with fibromyalgia who was prescribed painkillers and overdosed in her car while her kid was in the backseat. Heroin and fentanyl are the primary causes of deadly overdoses, but the road from painkillers to heroin is an all-too-common path: four out of five heroin users start by misusing painkillers.
If you are recovering from surgery or suffer from chronic pain, this data can be concerning and make you hesitant to take opioids to manage your pain. Know that while prescription painkillers may lead to addiction in some cases, you can safely use them to manage your pain.
Below are some steps you can take to safeguard yourself against addiction.
Analyze Your Risk Factors
While there is no way to predict who will or won’t become addicted, some individuals are more predisposed to addiction than others. Certain factors – such as a family history of alcoholism or drug addiction, mental health conditions like anxiety or depression, and personal history of use – increase the likelihood of you becoming addicted. Be sure to share this information with your doctor before they prescribe you painkillers.
Seek a Specialist
If you suffer from chronic pain, find a doctor who specializes in long-term pain management. While your general practitioner can certainly provide you with a prescription for painkillers, a specialist will be better able to determine the appropriate dosage and treatment plan as well as suggest non-opioid medications and holistic therapies as forms of pain management.
Talk to Your Doctor
Let your doctor know your concerns and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Being informed about the risks of opioid misuse will help minimize your risk. Be sure that your doctor carefully explains dosage and frequency, and follow the instructions as given. If you later feel that your dose is too low and your pain is too severe, reach out to your doctor so they can reexamine your prescription and offer you an alternative. Never increase the dose yourself.
Ask About Alternatives
Opioids are effective at managing pain, but they are not the only option. Talk to your doctor about trying non-opioid alternatives first or taking low-dose opioids in combination with holistic therapies. There are several holistic options that can help, including yoga, massage therapy, and physical therapy. Some, such as acupuncture, have even been proven to be effective for pain management in emergency room settings.
Be Honest with Yourself
Keep track of how many pills you are taking and how often. It is easy to take an extra pill or two when the pain won’t subside, but that behavior can rapidly spiral out of control. Writing down when you take a pill will keep you aware of your behavior. Letting your loved ones know that you are taking prescription painkillers and what your dosage is will also help keep you accountable. If you find yourself taking more than prescribed, speak to your doctor.
Remember, Some Pain is Okay
Prescription painkillers are powerful medications necessary in the treatment of acute pain, but there are cases when pushing through the pain is okay. No one expects you to be back to normal the day after an injury, but if your pain is manageable a few days after, ask your doctor if you can switch to non-opioid medications. Taking the lowest dosage for the least amount of time helps decrease your risk of becoming addicted.