For the past six months, the nation’s attention has been focused on the coronavirus pandemic – but the opioid epidemic rages on. If you’ve heard the term before but aren’t sure what it means, it refers to the hundreds of thousands of Americans who have become addicted, overdosed, or died from prescription pain medications.
The effects aren’t just physical: opioid addiction can cost people their jobs and their reputations. It can isolate people from their family and friends. Opioid addiction can lead even the most honorable people into a life of ill judgment, bad decisions, and even crime. Read on to learn more about the benefits, dangers, and what AltaMed is doing to protect patients.
What Are Opioids?
Opioids are a general class of drugs naturally found in the opium poppy plant or created in a lab to produce the same effects. The main effect of opioids is pain relief, but many opioids also leave the user feeling incredibly relaxed, and even high.
Opioids are extremely effective for treating certain types of pain, especially pain that is acute, or short-term in nature.
You might be prescribed opioids if you:
- Just had surgery
- Broke a bone
- Experience kidney stones
- Have cancer
- Or other cases in which there may be severe pain that is not expected to last more than a few weeks or even a couple of months.
Commonly prescribed opioids include:
- Hydrocodone (Vicodin, Lortab, Norco)
- Oxycodone (OxyContin, Percocet, Endocet)
- Oxymorphone (Opana)
- Morphine (MS Contin, Kadian, Oramorph SR)
- Hydromorphone (Dilaudid)
- Fentanyl (Duragesic)
- Codeine (Tylenol with Codeine)
The street drug, heroin, is an opioid, though it is never used as a medicine in the United States.
What to Do If Your Doctor Prescribes You Opioids
If you are a patient who has been prescribed opioids, always ask if there is another medication or therapy available to you. For example, if you have been prescribed opioids for back pain, ask if physical therapy, or a drug like aspirin or ibuprofen is a better choice. Pain patients may also benefit from alternative/complementary treatments such as trigger point injections, massage, and even behavioral therapy. If your doctor doesn’t want to discuss alternatives, get a second opinion.
However, if you and your doctor thoughtfully decide an opioid prescription is the most appropriate treatment, these steps can help make sure you are using them properly and not putting yourself, or anyone else, at risk.
- Take your medication exactly as prescribed.
- Educate yourself about the health risks, and signs of abuse and overdose.
- Never lend your medication to anyone else.
- Keep your medicine somewhere safe and out of reach of children.
- Tell all of your doctors about the medications you’re taking.
- If you have extra, contact your pharmacy to learn about safe disposal.
- When it’s time to stop taking your prescription, talk to your health care team about making a plan to get off of opioids.
Why You Must Know the Dangers
One of the things that makes opioids so addictive is how they affect your brain: they help produce endorphins, which block pain and make you feel good. Over time, your brain may stop producing its own endorphins, and so the only way to feel good is to take more drugs. And over time, opioids also become less effective at making the pain go away, so you’ll need more to get the same effects. This is called dependence.
Misuse is taking opioids in any way other than how a doctor prescribes. For example, taking a higher dosage, or, instead of taking them as pills, crushing and snorting them, or taking prescriptions that aren’t yours. Because opioids are so powerful, any one of these things can lead to an overdose or even death.
Addiction is compulsive drug use, no matter what the consequences are. Dependence and addiction often go hand-in-hand, and addiction can often lead to misuse, though not everyone who misuses a drug is an addict.
An overdose occurs when someone takes too much of a drug. Opioids affect the part of the brain that controls breathing, and during an overdose, breathing can slow down or stop, leading to seizures, respiratory failure, and even death.
Any one of these dangers can happen in a short period, even with a low dosage. This is why it’s critical for anyone with a prescription to work closely with their health care team.
The Benefits of Getting Your Care Under One Roof
AltaMed physicians and pharmacists take an active role in helping to prevent opioid misuse and addiction. When you get care in the AltaMed network, electronic health records let our physicians share information, so you’re never prescribed more than you need. Your AltaMed pharmacist will ensure your medications don’t interact with each other, and that you know exactly what you’re taking.
AltaMed also uses COMBAT, a comprehensive program that takes a proactive approach to identifying and monitoring potentially high-risk patients. The program’s goal is to provide physicians with tools to prevent misuse and overdose, and ensure the patient is still getting effective treatment for their pain.
If you are being treated for pain, the best way to protect yourself is to work closely with your doctor. Have an honest discussion about your concerns. We’re here for you to get the help you need, and support your mind and body on your journey to grow healthy.