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In pain? Here’s what you need to know about opioids.

By The Health News Team | July 12, 2022
Patient talking to doctor

With more than 130 people dying every day in the U.S. from opioid-related drug overdoses, it’s understandable some people have fears about taking this pain medication. However, while the opioid crisis is very real, no one should have to suffer through pain when there is safe and effective relief available.

While addiction to opioids often starts with a legal prescription, Dr. Zachary Cohen, a pain management doctor affiliated with Sharp Grossmont Hospital and Sharp Community Medical Group, points out that opioid therapy plays an important role in pain management.

“Opioid therapy is appropriate for some patients with certain pain conditions,” Dr. Cohen says. “Each patient needs to be individually assessed for initiation of opioid therapy and continually monitored while using opioids.”

When to seek pain management care
Dr. Cohen says pain management specialists primarily treat chronic conditions that have been present for more than three consecutive months. Most patients seeking care have already tried physical therapy and other non-opioid medications without seeing the results they were hoping for, he says. Or they may not have qualified for — or wanted — surgery to address the issue causing pain.

“Patients may have undergone a surgical consultation, and surgery at that time was not warranted,” Dr. Cohen says. “Or a patient may want to delay surgery because it is not a convenient time in their life due to work or family circumstances.”

When evaluating and treating a patient’s pain condition, Dr. Cohen says he is primarily concerned about how their pain is affecting their daily life and functionality. His goal, he says, is to get patients back to doing the things that their pain is preventing them from doing.

Considerations before starting opioid therapy
If a doctor suggests that opioid therapy may be beneficial for a patient to manage their pain, they must first discuss any personal or family history of addiction or substance use. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, using opioids for pain relief can lead to addiction, overdose and death.

If prescribed opioids, the lowest dose for the shortest duration should initially be taken. And patients should always follow their doctor’s directions and take the medication as prescribed. Additionally, it is very important that anyone on opioid medications stay in close contact with their doctor to monitor pain, side effects and signs of addiction.

Signs of opioid addiction include:

  • Personality changes

  • Change in sleep habits

  • Lack of hygiene

  • Frequent flu-like symptoms

  • Weight loss

  • Decreased energy or motivation

Alternatives to opioid therapy
Along with opioid therapy, alternative pain management methods are also extremely useful, Dr. Cohen says. “Alternative methods for pain relief often complement more traditional methods, making them more successful,” he says.

Patients can talk with their doctor about alternatives to try without the use of opioids or in conjunction with opioid therapy. Some possibilities include:

  • Physical therapy

  • Chiropractic care

  • Deep breathing or meditation

  • Exercise and stretching

  • Medical injections, procedures or interventions

  • Massage and complementary therapies, such as acupuncture

  • Psychological treatment, such as biofeedback

  • Heat or ice

Talk with your doctor if you are experiencing pain that is not managed through alternative methods. Together, you can determine the best treatment plan to relieve your pain and improve your quality of life.

When talking with your doctor, Dr. Cohen recommends you:

  • Use descriptive words. Explain your pain with words such as such as “sharp,” “stabbing” and “burning.” It’s also helpful to share what makes pain better or worse.

  • Describe how pain affects your daily life. Explain how your pain is limiting you. What are you physically having a hard time doing?

  • Talk about goals for pain management. What would you like to get back to doing? This could be playing golf again, comfortably traveling, or playing with your children or grandchildren.

“The most gratifying aspect of being a pain management physician is helping patients get back to doing the things they love to do,” Dr. Cohen says.

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