Dangers of Opioid Pain Relievers: What You Need to Know

These powerful medications need to be taken with care
Dangers of Opioid Pain Relievers: What You Need to Know

More and more, we are hearing about the use and abuse of opioid pain medications in recent years. Experts say the widespread abuse of this class of drugs started more than two decades ago. Across the country today, healthcare authorities are paying much more attention to the problem, and doctors are taking this into consideration when prescribing opioids.

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Before you consider taking them, learn more about these powerful medications.

How they work

Opioids are a class of medications that reduces the intensity of pain signals to the brain. They also affect the brain areas that control emotion, which helps to diminish the effects of a painful stimulus. For this reason, they can be addictive.

They include:

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Hydrocodone (Vicodin®) and Oxycodone (OxyContin®, Percocet®): These powerful opioids are most commonly prescribed for a range of painful conditions such as injury-related pain, cancer pain or dental pain.

Morphine: This is often used before and after a surgical procedure to alleviate severe pain

Codeine: This is most often prescribed for mild pain. It is also prescribed for other health issues such as coughs and severe diarrhea.

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Some shocking facts about opioids

  • The effects of opioids — including their addictive qualities — are a big contributor to the more than 16,600 U.S. deaths from painkiller use that occur each year—that’s about 45 people a day in the emergency department (ED). And this doesn’t include the people who have gone to the ED and survived an overdose.
  • Prescriptions for the drugs have climbed 300 percent in the last decade or so. In fact, Vicodin and other hydrocodone-combination painkillers are the most commonly prescribed drugs in the U.S.
  • The issue of opioid abuse began in the late 1990s and by 2007, deaths from opioid overdose outnumbered deaths from heroin and cocaine in the U.S.
  • In recent years, hundreds of federal, state, and local interventions have been implemented in response to the opioid epidemic. Today there is a national database that helps healthcare experts to monitor usage, deaths and growing trends.
  • When abused, even a single large dose can cause severe respiratory failure, which can lead to death.
  • Nearly one-third of women of reproductive age had an opioid prescription filled each year between 2008 and 2012.
  • Exposure to opioids in utero increases the risk of defects in the baby’s brain, heart, spine and abdominal wall.
  • And they don’t always ease the pain. Patients on chronic opioids may feel worse overall because of the side effects. These can include constipation, sedation and depression. Some patients even experience worsened pain after starting chronic opioids, an effect known as opioid-induced hyperalgesia.

“The role of opioids in treating chronic pain is small and limited to a narrow subset of patients,” says Richard Rosenquist, MD, Chairman of Cleveland Clinic’s Department of Pain Management. “In general today, pain specialists are rarely prescribing opioids for chronic pain.”

Statistics are according to the Centers for Disease and Prevention (CDC).

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