Most people have at one point or another reached for an over-the-counter painkiller looking for relief from a headache or backache. In some cases, however, a regular dose of ibuprofen just won’t cut it. For patients just discharged from surgery or dealing with chronic pain conditions, something stronger may be needed.
In many cases in which over-the-counter painkillers just won’t meet the mark, doctors may prescribe opioid, or narcotic, painkillers. These medications are available by prescription only and are tightly regulated. Narcotics may be abused and have some potential for dependency, but if used correctly, they are safe for most patients. These drugs work by binding with opioid receptors throughout the body, including in the brain and spinal column. This binding inhibits the ability of pain messages to be sent to the brain, thereby reducing the amount of pain experienced. Most of these medications are taken by mouth, though some are available in a patch that allows the medication to be absorbed through the skin.
Depending on the source of the pain and the patient’s unique needs, narcotic painkillers may be prescribed to be taken on a regular schedule, as needed for intense pain, or a combination of both. Your doctor should work closely with you to ensure that your medication is reducing the amount of pain you experience and that you are not having any dangerous side effects. Some common side effects that may occur with opioids that are not necessarily dangerous may include constipation, nausea, vomiting, and/or dizziness. Some doctors or pharmacists may recommend the use of a laxative in addition to your narcotic painkillers, but it is important to consult with these professionals instead of taking matters on yourself. Make sure your doctor and pharmacist are aware of any other medications you are on. Some medications, including types of antidepressants, antihistamines, and sleeping pills, may cause negative interactions.
Patients prescribed a regular regimen of narcotics may need more of the medication to feel the same benefits over time. This means the patient is developing a tolerance for the drug, which is not the same as becoming addicted. Addiction occurs when the patient develops a compulsive use of the medication with little or no medical benefit. This is extremely unlikely to occur in patients who use narcotic painkillers as prescribed. If you have concerns about the strength, type, or frequency of the medication you are taking, you may need to have an open and honest conversation with your doctor about your pain management options.