Opioids are a class of drugs that are naturally found in the opium poppy plant. They act on the brain’s pain signals, reducing the strength of the signals that are sent to the brain from the body through the nervous system. Morphine, heroin, oxycodone, and hydrocodone are all examples of opiates. They are highly addictive, and should be taken with caution. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, between 8 and 12% of people who misuse opioid medication develop an opioid use disorder, and approximately 80% of people who use heroin first misused opioid medication. 

‘1.4 million emergency room visits in 2011 were related to the misuse or abuse of prescription medicines, an increase of 114% since 2004.’

  • The following are facts from the CDC – Centres for Disease Control and Prevention:
  • From 1999 to 2017, more than 700,000 people have died from a drug overdose.
  • Around 68% of the more than 70,200 drug overdose deaths in 2017 involved an opioid.
  • In 2017, the number of overdose deaths involving opioids (including prescription opioids and illegal opioids like heroin and illicitly manufactured fentanyl) was 6 times higher than in 1999. 

These statistics highlight the extremely dangerous health risks that are associated with opioid medication.

With these numbers in mind, let’s talk about what you should know about the dangers of using opioids for acute pain conditions.

Opioids are Addictive

Opioid dependence can happen to anyone. These are powerful painkillers and regardless of age or sex or health status, the potential for dependency and even addiction is dangerously high. Make sure you know exactly what it is you’re taking, how much you should take at a time, and how often you should take it. Opioid medications are sold and prescribed under the brand names OxyContin, Percocet (oxycodone), Vicodin (hydrocodone), and Demerol (meperidine) to name a few.

Caution is Key

Be mindful when taking any new medication, but especially with opioids. Check with your doctor if the medication will interact with any other substance you are taking, prescription or otherwise. Opioids decrease the heart rate and slow down breathing, so combining them with other substances like alcohol or benzodiazepines, which have a similar effect, could be fatal. ‘It is important that you are cautious with opiates’, says psychotherapist Jason Shiers, ‘as frequent use can lead to dependence before even realising it is a problem.’

Avoid Regular Intake

Generally a doctor will recommend that a patient takes an opioid painkiller once every several hours as needed. As needed is key here. Intake of this medication should not be governed by time, but by necessity of use. If you’re in pain, be honest with yourself about whether or not it’s manageable. If you think it is, try alternative methods of pain relief. Could the pain you’re experiencing at the moment be eased by a lower strength drug like paracetamol, or even a cold/warm compress? Try not to go straight for the opiate.

Jennifer P. Schneider, M.D, PhD, states that ‘opioids need to be initiated at a low dose, even though that dose may provide insufficient analgesia. The dose is then increased in stages until an effective level of analgesia is achieved. Tolerance to the mood-altering effects of opioids, like tolerance to sedation and nausea, also develops very quickly, within days.’

Watch How You Feel

Take note of any behavioural or emotional changes that arise during the course of your medication. Are you remaining responsible for yourself and your prescribed course, or do you find yourself taking more than what’s been recommended? Do you find pleasure in the medication, so much so that you want more of it? It is a good idea to speak to a healthcare professional if you believe you may develop a dependency/addiction. It is also worth informing someone close to you about your prescription. They can take an unbiased view of your behaviour and let you know if it seems like you’re misusing your prescription.