The Dangers of Opioids and Safer Chronic Pain Management Options

To truly understand the dangers of opioids we need to understand what opioids are. Are opioids more dangerous than they are effective? And what are the alternatives?

If you’re someone who suffers from chronic pain, it’s likely that you’ve thought of every potential avenue to ease your suffering. But there are a few pain relief avenues that can cause more harm than good, and opioids are one such example.

Opioids can be prescribed by a doctor to treat chronic pain caused by a wide array of things like arthritis, fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis, sports injuries, migraines and more. They’re highly effective, but equally as dangerous.

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the United States alone, it’s estimated that 192 US citizens die every day from an opioid-induced drug overdose. They’re considered to be the leading drug involved in all overdoses, with opioids causing 67.8 percent of deaths-by-overdose back in 2017.

So what can be done to overcome this deadly epidemic? The first thing to do is understand exactly what an opioid is. This article will aim to explain that, as well as the inherent dangers that come from abusing them, and how you can handle pain without needing them.

What Are Opioids?

Opioids are a type of drug that is derived from the opium poppy plant. While some opioids are made directly from the plant itself, others can be made synthetically by following the same chemical structure. Regardless of how they’re made, they have the same effect: inducing relaxation in the body and decreasing – or often completely removing – feelings of pain and discomfort.

There are many different types, both legal and illegal. Legal, prescription opioids include Codeine, Fentanyl, Hydrocodone, Methadone, Morphine, Oxycodone, and many more. Illegal opioids are drugs such as heroin, which is often much cheaper to purchase and equally as effective in chasing that ‘high’. 

Opioids work by binding to receptors in the brain that are related to the opioid system. This system is the neurological area that controls pain, rewards and addictive behaviors, which makes them both highly-effective painkillers and also incredibly addictive. These opioid receptors can be triggered either endogenously (meaning naturally from within the human body) and exogenously (meaning from an external source, such as opioids and other drugs). When they are triggered, they encourage profound feelings of bliss and relief from even the most severe types of pain. 

The effects of opioids aren’t always so ‘feel-good’ though. According to an article published on The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), Avoiding Opioids and Their Harmful Side Effects in the Postoperative Patient, the potential effects of the drug include “nausea, vomiting, constipation, excessive sedation, clouded sensorium, dizziness, respiratory depression, and addiction”.

If opioids are prescribed by a healthcare professional after careful consideration of the individual patient, they can be an effective way of managing chronic pain. However, if they’re abused or used without the guidance of a professional, this can cause addiction, which can subsequently cause severe damage to all aspects of a person’s life, including their physical and mental health, social lives, family and finances. Long-term use can damage the respiratory, gastrointestinal, musculoskeletal, cardiovascular, immune, endocrine, and central nervous systems, so it’s imperative that if opioid addiction does happen, it’s dealt with as quickly and as effectively as possible.

There are many signs of opioid addiction, and they vary from person to person. But if you are concerned about yourself or a loved one, here are some things to look out for:

  • Sudden and severe mood changes
  • Changes in sleeping habits
  • Uncontrollable cravings for the drug
  • Weight-loss
  • Changes in personal hygiene
  • Drowsiness
  • Increased isolation from family and friends
  • Decreased libido
  • Problems arising at work, school and/or in relationships
  • Financial difficulties

Why Are They Dangerous?

Opioids are no doubt an effective way to manage pain, but their addictiveness is largely what makes them so dangerous. Anyone who begins a course of opioids is at risk of becoming addicted to them, because while they trigger the release of endorphins, they also inhibit the body’s production and release of them. This causes users to require higher and higher doses every time they ingest the drug, and this is what leads to addiction, and sometimes, accidental overdose.

Addiction occurs when the person no longer requires them for medical purposes, and is instead compelled to take them to satiate a compulsive, powerful urge to do so. Addiction to opioids changes the chemistry in the brain, leading to dependance and severe difficulties in weaning off the drug. The longer you’re using opioids, the more severe withdrawal effects will likely be.

Opioid withdrawal symptoms include:

  • Shaking (tremors)
  • Anxiety
  • Insonia
  • Vomiting and/or diarrhea
  • Craving the drug
  • Muscle cramps 
  • Bone and joint aches
  • Hot and cold flashes
  • Sweating

How Should You Manage Chronic Pain Instead?

You don’t need to continue suffering from chronic pain, and you certainly don’t need to turn to something as potentially dangerous as opioids in order to manage it. If you require something like medication to deal with it, it’s important to work with a trusted professional to help decide on the most effective, safest option. There are plenty of various medications that are safer than opioids, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), Acetaminophen, anticonvulsants, muscle relaxants and even anti-depressants, that can be just as successful.

Exercise is also an effective way to treat chronic pain, even though it might sound counterintuitive. Working alongside a physical therapist in doing slow, gentle exercises, specific to the area affected by the pain is a great way to safely work through and relieve pain. Some of the best exercises to treat chronic pain include walking, yoga, swimming, pilates and strength training. The best course of action is to discuss with your doctor before beginning any exercise. Check out our guide to moving with chronic pain here to start introducing better movement into your pain management toolbox!

Further, diet and lifestyle can assist in chronic pain management. While it of course can’t heal or cure it completely, it can assist in managing the severity of inflammation that causes chronic pain. According to an article published in Harvard Health Publishing, “diet can contribute to increased systemic inflammation”, and making changes in the way you eat is a great way to reduce inflammation. Start by including foods such as whole fruits, green, leafy vegetables, legumes, nuts and whole grains

If you suffer from chronic pain, it’s important to still maintain quality of life while you’re treating it. But don’t risk becoming addicted to opioids in the hopes of finding a solution. Download the Pathways Pain Relief app (update Aug 2023: Pathways is now a web app! Start our program here) to create your own personalised pain relief program, and start your journey back to good health today!

Please note: This article is made available for educational purposes only, not to provide personal medical advice.

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