Q&A About Opioids With Pharmacist Stephen Furr
According to the state’s medical examiner system, 1,974 poisoning deaths in 2017 involved opioids. The problem shows no signs of slowing. However, opioids play a vital role in hospitals.
Cone Health pharmacist Stephen Furr answers five common questions around how opioids can be used safely.
What are opioids and how do they work?
An opioid is a substance, natural or synthetic, that binds to the parts of the brain responsible for controlling pain, reward and addictive behaviors. Opiates are “natural” opioids that are derived from the poppy seed and include codeine, heroin and morphine. Opioids include synthetic or semi-synthetic drugs like fentanyl, hydrocodone and tramadol. All opioids can lead to physical dependence and addiction.
If using opioids are so dangerous, why do doctors still prescribe them?
For most people, when opioids are taken as prescribed by a medical professional for a short period of time, they are relatively safe and can reduce pain effectively.
Are there better options for pain relief than using opioids?
Talk to your doctor about ways to manage your pain that do not involve prescription opioids. Some of these options may actually work better and have fewer risks and side effects. Options may include:
- Acetaminophen and/or ibuprofen - side effects must still be considered.
- Lidocaine patches and patches that contain nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (such as aspirin and Ibuprofen) or capsaicin.
- Medications for depression or seizures.
- Interventional therapies (cortisone injections, hyaluronic acid, etc.), physical therapy, exercise, yoga, cognitive therapy and acupuncture. All of these have been found to be effective and involve the individual taking an active role in achieving pain relief.
What should I do or know if my health care provider prescribes an opioid for me?
- Never take opioids in greater amounts or more often than prescribed.
- Follow up with your primary health care provider within an agreed upon number of days. Together, create a plan to manage your pain and discuss ways to manage pain without prescription opioids.
- Talk about concerns and side effects, which may include tolerance, physical dependence and increased sensitivity to pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, confusion, dizziness and depression.
- Realize risks are greater with a history of substance abuse, mental health conditions, sleep apnea and being older than 65.
- Avoid taking with alcohol with muscle relaxers, benzodiazepines, hypnotics and other prescription opioids unless authorized by your doctor.
How can people get involved to stem the tide of opioid addiction and death?
- Never sell or share prescription opioids. Never use another person’s prescription opioids.
- Store prescription opioids in a secure place and out of reach of others. Safely dispose of unused prescription opioids.
- If you believe you may be struggling with addiction, talk to your health care provider and ask for guidance or call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration helpline at 800-662-HELP (4357).
- Naloxone, the antidote for opioid overdoses, is available upon request at pharmacies.
About the Author
Stephen Furr, RPH, BS, Pharm, is the Pharmacy Operations Coordinator at Cone Health.