Opioids: How physician anesthesiologists are treating pain responsibly
The opioid crisis has made physicians increasingly wary about prescribing the potentially addictive drugs to their patients in pain. Experts in pain medicine, such as physician anesthesiologists, are creating individualized pain management plans that include alternatives to opioids that are not only safer, but often work better.
“Opioids, or narcotics, can be helpful for short-term relief, but they are not a long-term solution for managing pain because of their many downsides, from significant side effects to a high risk of dependence or addiction,” said Greg L. Thompson, M.D., physician anesthesiologist, pain medicine specialist and member of the American Society of Anesthesiologists (ASA). “Pain medicine specialists can help people in pain get relief and reduce or eliminate opioids often by using a combination of techniques from physical therapy and nerve blocks to non-addictive pain medications.”
Opioids alleviated the excruciating pain 37-year-old mother of two Beth Hunt suffered while recovering from multiple surgeries after her leg was crushed in an accident. But after three months in the hospital on opioids, she came to rely on them just to be comfortable. Hunt turned to Dr. Thompson, who used ultrasound and tiny catheters, or tubes, to direct medication to the major nerves in her leg that were the source of the pain. This therapy reduced her opioid use by 90 percent while her leg healed, and she learned to walk again. Now she is opioid-free, has regained her quality of life and is spending time being active with her children.
Hunt never dreamed she’d become dependent on opioids, but her experience shows it can happen to anyone. ASA urges people to learn how the opioid crisis is changing the way physicians treat pain responsibly, and the reasons your physician may limit or avoid prescribing opioids:
They are not the only option:
While opioids can provide general pain relief for a short while, they are not the solution for all pain because:
* There are more effective methods for treating pain in a specific site, including nerve blocks or stimulation therapy.
* People who take them can begin tolerating the dose and may need higher doses to get the same relief.
There are many side effects and risks:
* Addiction and dependence are major worries. If there are signs of risk for addiction your physician may be more hesitant to prescribe opioids.
* Other side effects include: sleepiness, constipation, depression, life-threatening shallow breathing and slowed heart rate — which could be a sign of an overdose.
* In older people, opioids can increase the risk of falling as well as interact with other medications, making them less effective or causing side effects.
It’s the law:
Legislators have enacted many rules and regulations to stem the opioid crisis. For example, because studies show the longer people take opioids, the more likely they are to become addicted, some states have enacted prescribing limits on opioids.
It’s important to know there are many other options for managing pain, from targeted therapies (e.g., nerve blocks) to non-addictive medications (e.g., antidepressants, antiseizure medications, acetaminophen and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen) to high-tech methods (e.g., spinal stimulation and radiowave therapy) to alternative treatments (e.g., physical therapy, acupuncture and meditation).
For more information on pain treatment, visit the American Society of Anesthesiologists online at asahq.org/pain or find them on Facebook and Twitter. To learn more about the role physician anesthesiologists play in ensuring patient safety, visit asahq.org/WhenSecondsCount.