Taking opioids for pain?
Here are some hard questions to ask

While opioids can be effective for moderate to severe short-term pain, they are not without risk. Because opioids have significant side effects, including a risk of addiction and overdose, we recommend people taking opioids ask tough questions of themselves and their physicians – including if it is time to consider other options.

Watch Kathleen Callahan’s story and learn how she worked with her physician anesthesiologist after still suffering with chronic pain despite being on a high dose of opioids. 

If you are taking opioids or your physician has prescribed them, ask yourself (and your physician) some tough questions.  A downloadable list of these questions is available here.

  • Why was I prescribed opioids?
    • Some physicians assume patients will demand what many consider the strongest and most effective pain relief and therefore prescribe opioids automatically. But there are many medication and non-medication options, so ask your physician if other pain relief methods might be effective.
    • If you and your physician decide opioids are the best option, ask how long you should take them. In most cases, opioids are most beneficial for short-term moderate to severe pain – such as a few days after surgery or an injury. If you continue to have pain, ask your physician about alternatives.
  • Are opioids affecting my quality of life? Opioids have many side effects, ranging from severe constipation, mental fogginess and nausea to depression.
  • What are my concerns about taking opioids – or stopping them? With the media attention surrounding opioid risks, many people feel conflicted about taking them. They may:
    • worry about being judged by others;
    • be concerned about becoming addicted and/or potentially overdosing; and
    • fear they won’t be able to control their pain if they stop taking opioids.

It’s important to talk to your physician if you have any of these concerns or others. Also ask about obtaining naloxone, a drug that can reverse an overdose if injected quickly enough. If you take opioids when you don’t have pain or use more than directed, you may develop a dependence or addiction.    

  • Is it time to consider other methods of pain management? Opioids are most effective short term. While some people with chronic pain find relief with opioids, they should be part of a “multimodal” plan, which features other methods of pain management. Discuss alternative therapies with your physician, including:
    • Injections or nerve blocks – Injection with local anesthetics can short circuit muscle and nerve pain.
    • Electrical stimulation and spinal cord stimulation – Electrical impulses sent by devices implanted or worn on the body can block pain.
    • Physical therapy – Strengthening muscles can improve function and decrease pain. Physical therapy may include other pain-easing methods such as whirlpools, ultrasound and massage.
    • Acupuncture – Very thin needles placed in various parts of the body can interrupt pain signals.
    • Biofeedback, meditation, deep breathing and relaxation – These methods can ease pain by controlling involuntary functions such as heart rate, as well as learning to ease muscle tension.
    • Surgical procedures – In some cases, surgery can correct painful abnormalities or sever the nerves causing the pain.
  • What type of physician can best help manage my pain? If you have severe or ongoing pain, be sure to see a physician who specializes in pain management, such as a physician anesthesiologist. These specialists have received four years of medical school and additional training in a specialty, such as anesthesiology or physical medicine and rehabilitation, followed by an additional year of training to become an expert in treating pain. They have the expertise to best help you manage your pain.