Opioid FAQs

Q: What are Opioids?

Opioids are natural or synthetic chemicals that treat moderate to severe pain. Common prescription opioids include:

  • Hydrocodone (Vicodin®)
  • Oxycodone (OxyContin®)
  • Oxymorphone (Opana®)
  • Codeine
  • Morphine
  • Methadone
  • Fentanyl

Q: Are Opioids Necessary?

Opioid medications are one of many options for treating acute or chronic pain.

Acute pain usually starts suddenly and has a known cause, like an injury or surgery. It normally gets better as your body heals. If you receive a prescription for an opioid medication, try the lowest dose possible in the smallest quantity for the shortest time possible. Generally opioids should be used for 3 days or less for acute pain; there is no evidence they are effective for long-term use.

Chronic pain is pain lasting three months or more and can be caused by a disease or condition, injury, medical treatment, inflammation, or even an unknown reason. Before taking opioid medication for chronic pain:

  • Discuss pain treatment options with your healthcare provider, including ones that do not involve prescription drugs.
  • Discuss your medical history with your healthcare provider and if anyone in your family has a history of substance misuse or addition to drugs and/or alcohol.
  • Discuss the risks and benefits associated with taking opioids medications.

Speak openly with your healthcare provider to establish a pain management plan that is safe and effective for you. Schedule a follow-up appointment with your provider to reevaluate your pain and, if you have been taking opioid medication, provide guidance on when and how to stop.

Q: Will I Get Addicted to Opioids?

Anyone who takes prescription opioids has the potential of becoming addicted. You may also develop tolerance—which means that over time you might need higher doses to relieve your pain; this also places you at higher risk for a potentially fatal overdose. You can also develop physical dependence—meaning you may have withdrawal symptoms when you stop taking the medication.

Discuss your medical history with your healthcare provider and if anyone in your family has a history of substance misuse or addition to drugs and/or alcohol. Also, never take opioids in higher amounts or more often than prescribed.

Q: Can I Avoid Side Effects and Risks?

No. Opioids pose a risk to all patients. Anyone taking prescription opioids can not only become addicted but is at risk for unintentional overdose or death. Additionally, the use of prescription opioids can have a number of side effects, even when taken as directed. Review these with your healthcare provider, so you know what you might expect:

  • Tolerance—needing to take more of the medication over time for the same pain relief
  • Physical dependence—experiencing symptoms of withdrawal when the medication is stopped
  • Increased sensitivity to pain
  • Constipation
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Dry mouth
  • Sleepiness and dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Depression
  • Low levels of testosterone that can result in lower sex drive, energy, and strength
  • Itching
  • Sweating

Remember, your healthcare provider is your partner in your pain treatment plan. It’s important to discuss any side effects and/or concerns to make sure you’re getting the safest, most effective care.

Q: What Increases My Risk of Overdose from Opioid Medications?

It is very dangerous to combine opioid medications with other drugs, especially those that cause drowsiness. Your overdose risk increases when your opioid medication is combined with:

  • Alcohol
  • Benzodiazepines (also known as “benzos,” including diazepam and alprazolam)
  • Other sedatives
  • Other opioids (prescription or illicit, including heroin)

Tell your healthcare provider about all the medications you are using. Also, ask about any side effects related to the medications you are taking (like excessive sleepiness or craving more of the medication). This will help you and your family know when to call a doctor or to the hospital.

Q: Are There Other Options for Pain Management?

Patients with pain should receive treatment that provides the greatest benefit. Opioids are not the first-line therapy for chronic pain outside of active cancer treatment, palliative care, and end-of-life care. In fact, evidence suggests that non-opioid treatments may actually work better and have fewer risks and side effects. Some alternative pain-management options include:

  • Acetaminophen (Tylenol®) or ibuprofen (Advil®)
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy, a psychological, goal-directed approach in which patients learn how to modify physical, behavioral, and emotional triggers of pain and stress
  • Exercise therapy, including physical therapy
  • Medications for depression or for seizures
  • Injection therapies
  • Exercise and weight loss
Other therapies such as acupuncture and massage