Do you know that the use of opioids (which include pain medicines such as OxyContin, Vicodin or illicit substances such as opium and heroin) claim as many lives each year as car accidents?
The irony is that good and well-intentioned physicians have played a part in this particular public health crisis. In 2012, physicians issued 259 million opioid drugs, which have quadrupled over the past several years, the equivalent of giving a bottle of pills to every adult in the United States!
Addiction to pain medication has obviously led to this epidemic, but experts agree that the real culprit in the use of opioids has been chronic pain. According to a study published in 2011 by the Institute of Medicine, about 100 million Americans live with chronic pain caused by factors such as nerve damage, diabetes, chemotherapy, car accident, virus, osteoarthritis, multiple sclerosis or some other injury.
Pain medication is, without a doubt, the best defense against acute, short-term pain, which is what it is mostly prescribed for. Yet, it is prescribed even later on for lingering chronic pain manifesting in the form of symptoms like body aches and crippling fatigue even after an injury has healed.
Opioids work well in the short run, released to subside incoming pain signals under normal circumstances; opioids mimic our brain’s own morphine-like molecules called endogenous opioids. However, in the body, endogenous opioids are released only when needed. External opioids, on the other hand, when prescribed, go everywhere, and activate receptors in the entire body. In patients, therefore, the dependency or addiction for pain medication sets in as they get used to the comfort.
In this process of addiction, patients either fail to understand or are oblivious to the side effects of pain medication, which can cause dangerous effects on multiple organs in their bodies:
- Since opioids dampen pain quickly, the body develops tolerance to it rapidly, and higher doses are therefore needed to achieve the same result son a continuous basis.
- The use of opioids can cause severe itching sensation in the spinal cord.
- Opioids can cause constipation in the gut area as it slows down movement in the digestive tract.
- Opioids cause highly pleasurable sensations in the brain, leading to addiction.
- The most dangerous thing that opioids can cause is respiratory depression, where the opioids depress signals from the neurons that control breathing, therefore causing death.
So, What Are the Alternatives to Opioids?
Research says that since the intensity of pain depends on each person’s bio-psychological factors, individualized care is the way to go with people suffering from chronic pain. According to scientists, the same kind of pain affects different people differently. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), the US Federal Government’s lead agency for scientific research on diverse medical and health care systems, conducted some clinical trials finding treatments that might work on patients with specific chronic pain problems.
It was found that:
- Acupuncture and Yoga benefited patients with chronic back pain problems.
- Acupuncture and Tai Chi proved helpful in patients with osteoarthritis.
- Massage therapy proved short-term benefits for neck-pain problems.
- Relaxation techniques were most effective in patients with severe headaches and migraines.