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Opioid Fact and Fiction: What You Need to Know to Protect Your Health

You’re likely aware that we’re battling an opioid epidemic in the United States. People are abusing opioids in record numbers and deaths related to opioid overdoses are skyrocketing. In fact, 91 people die every day from an opioid overdose. And, unfortunately, that rate continues to increase. Opioids can be helpful, but they’re also risky.

“An opioid prescription should only be taken as needed and directed for pain,” says E. Steven Moriconi, DMD, chief of the Dental Division at Abington-Jefferson Health. “There is no reason to continue taking it beyond a certain point when pain can be managed by other medications or methods.”

Separating fact from fiction and reality from hype can help you understand opioids better and avoid potential problems if your doctor prescribes this medication for you.

Myth: Opioids Are Simply Stronger Versions of Over-the-Counter Pain Relievers

The Facts: Opioids are sometimes confused with other pain relievers like acetaminophen, ibuprofen, naproxen, and other medications you can buy off the shelf at your local pharmacy. In fact, opioids and these over-the-counter medications act in very different ways to relieve pain.

“An opioid drug binds to receptors in your brain, which means they act on your central nervous system to change your perception of pain and provide relief,” says Dr. Moriconi. “Non-opioid drugs don’t interact with your central nervous system to relieve pain; instead, they reduce inflammation or block natural chemicals in your body associated with pain.”

Myth: It’s Not Possible to Get Addicted to Opioids If You’re Careful

The Facts: Opioids are required in ever-increasing doses as you develop a tolerance to them. In other words, the dose you used to take to relive your pain will eventually not work as well, which means you’ll need more of the opioid to get the same effect.

“Continued use of opioids can lead to misuse and abuse,” says Dr. Moriconi. “This leads to physical dependence, which means you’ll experience withdrawal symptoms if you stop taking them.”

Myth: Opioids Are the Only Way to Treat Severe Pain

The Facts: Opioids are used for the short-term relief from of severe pain. However, recent studies have shown that the combination of non-opioid medications like ibuprofen and acetaminophen taken together can be as effective as an opioid. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as well as other medical and dental organizations, have realized this and have shared written guidelines with doctors and dentists to reduce the amount of opioid prescriptions they write.

“In dentistry, we advise patients to wait until they begin to feel pain before taking any medication, and then we always suggest starting with a combination of ibuprofen and acetaminophen,” says Dr. Moriconi. “I have almost completely stopped prescribing opioids to my patients, with great acceptance and success.”

Myth: Everyone Has an Equal Risk of Becoming Addicted to Opioids

The Facts: Certain individuals, especially patients between the ages of 12 and 18 years, are more susceptible to the addicting properties of opioids. In those people who are susceptible, which is up to 20 percent of this group, it may take as little as one dose to begin a path leading to addiction.

“Taking an opioid can be a ‘wow’ moment for some patients and they will seek it beyond what is necessary for their pain,” says Dr. Moriconi. “It can be difficult to identify who may be at risk, which is why it’s important for doctors to be conservative when they prescribe these drugs and for patients to be vigilant about when they use them.”

Myth: It’s Not Acceptable to Ask Questions About Your Opioid Prescription

The Facts: If an opioid is absolutely necessary in your doctor's opinion, then the lowest dose for the shortest period of time is recommended. All patients should ask their prescribing doctor if an opioid is absolutely necessary.

“It’s OK to ask your doctor if an alternative medication or therapy would be as effective as an opioid,” says Dr. Moriconi. “I also recommend asking your doctor to prescribe no more than three days of the opioid initially.”

When it comes to opioids, remember the most important fact: Addiction is a disease and recovery is a lifelong process. Take the steps and understand the facts to help reduce your risks if you’re prescribed an opioid medication.

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