Many older adults find themselves in difficult situations where chronic pain brings up strong emotions, fatigue, difficulty thinking clearly, and has a big impact on daily functioning. To cope with these problems, many people with chronic pain rely on opioid medications like Oxycontin, Percocet, or Vicodin.
These opioid medications have pros and cons. The pros are that they remain the most effective treatment for some kinds of chronic pain. They also can calm the strong negative emotions and fatigue so that people can function on a daily basis. However, these medications have a downside as well. They can be habit-forming and the body can develop a strong physical dependence on the medications, so that skipping even one dose of medication causes an intensely uncomfortable withdrawal syndrome of nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, muscle aches, insomnia, irritability, and fatigue. The medications can also have cognitive effects and dull your thinking and judgement.
So how do people stay healthy while managing pain? Here are a few tips to consider:
1. Minimize the use of opioid medications. Ask your doctor if there are other medications that might help treat your pain. Ask if you can use over the counter pain medications for less painful days and save the opioids for more severe pain.
2. Treat the underlying cause of the pain. Is the pain related to a treatable problem? For example, if you are obese and it is causing you to have knee pain, can you take off some weight to minimize your knee pain?
3. Employ good self-help skills. Pay attention to taking care of your body with good sleep habits, good nutrition, and good “me” time.
- Take care of your mental health. This is extremely important for people living with chronic pain, the mind-body connection is strong and mental health problems will make your pain worse. If you are depressed or anxious, get help! Sometimes treatment of depression and anxiety can reduce or eliminate your need for opioid medications.
- Avoid other substances. If you must continue to take the opioid medications, you can avoid other substances which can interact with these medications. For example, both alcohol and benzodiazepines (like ativan, valium, xanax, etc) interact with opioids and can be quite dangerous in combination.
- Manage opioid dependency. If you no longer need opioid medications for your pain but are unable to discontinue them due to withdrawal symptoms, there are treatment programs to help you get off the opioid medications. For example, Suboxone is a special medication just for opioid dependency where a doctor will help you switch from opioids to Suboxone and then help you slowly taper off of this medication.
If you have more questions please feel free to reach out to us. We are here to help!
Dr. Jennie Byrne, MD, PhD