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Sharp Health News

Managing chronic pain with and without opioids

Nov. 13, 2015

Managing pain with or without opioids

With the national spotlight on the rise of opioid dependence across the U.S., increased scrutiny is being placed on the doctors prescribing pain medications.

Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced a plan to help fight misuse by issuing guidelines for prescribing opioids. Although these drugs come with risks, they can be effective to treat chronic pain if included as part of an integrated treatment plan.

One study found that more than 2 million people in the United States were diagnosed with substance use disorders related to prescription opioid pain relievers. The CDC’s goal is to provide primary care doctors, who do not specialize in pain management, with guidance on the risks and benefits of prescribing these medications to help ensure they are used safely.

There are many ways to treat chronic pain. According to Dr. Joel Mata, a pain management specialist with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group, using multiple techniques in conjunction with an overall pain management plan can be very effective for some patients. Four important types of treatment methodologies – the 4 Ps – include:

  • Pharmacology: non-opioid alternatives, including anti-inflammatory and anti-neuropathic (or anti-nerve pain) medications and topical pain relievers (menthol-based products, local anesthetics, ice and patches that deliver topical heat)
  • Physical activity: regular or daily activity can promote our bodies’ natural pain-relieving chemicals, or “endorphins,” and a sense of self-control in what can otherwise feel like an uncontrollable disease process 
  • Procedures: surgical and nonsurgical procedures performed by specially trained doctors to alleviate many types of specific pain conditions
  • Psychology: trained psychologists can help patients identify pain triggers, learn to pace their activities and understand the link between chronic pain and emotions

For some patients, non-opioid treatments do not provide adequate pain relief. According to Dr. Mata, one of the most important ways to safeguard against prescribing opioids to at-risk patients is by working together with each patient to develop an individualized, safe and effective treatment plan.

“If a patient’s pain management plan includes opioid medications, they must understand the importance of their role in the process,” says Dr. Mata. “Patients should never take medications not prescribed to them or adjust their own doses without the agreement of their prescribing doctor. They should also keep track of when they take their medications and keep them in a locked, safe place.”

As with all medications, opioids come with risks. Short-term risks include drowsiness, forgetfulness, falls, constipation, nausea and coma. With long-term use of opioid medications, patients could experience increased pain and physical dependence, decreased physical function, increased disability, addiction and depression. If you experience chronic pain, you should contact your doctor to determine which treatment plan is right for you.

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