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Viewpoint: The opioid crisis and the value of pain

Dr. Kristi Trussell

Prescription drugs including opioids were responsible for the most overdose deaths of any illicit drugs since 2001, according to a report the Drug Enforcement Administration released this month. How did it get to this point?

The truth is, many Minnesotans who have an opioid addiction were once just a patient dealing with pain. In fact, each one of us is just a broken arm, a bad back or a slip on the ice away from being handed a prescription that, if abused, could become incredibly dangerous and possibly life-threatening.

Take a look at these statistics:

• Almost 30 percent of all patients prescribed opioids for chronic pain misuse them

• Approximately 10 percent will develop an opioid-use disorder

• Approximately 5 percent of those who misuse prescription opioids transition to heroin

• About 80 percent of people who use heroin first began with prescription opioids

So, what should the average person know about opioids? We talk so much about the abuse, the addicts, and the problem. But, what about going back to the very beginning and looking at the patient in pain.

What is an opioid?

Opioids are a type of medicine often used to help relieve pain. They work by lowering the number of pain signals your body sends to your brain. They also change how your brain responds to pain.

Opioids usually are safe when you use them correctly. But, people who do not follow their doctor's instructions and those who misuse opioids can become addicted. At The Urgency Room, we will prescribe an opioid only when necessary and only prescribe about three days worth of the medication while also encouraging the patient to take less than prescribed.

What to know if prescribed an opioid

First, know that you do not have to fill or take an opioid prescription if your pain is tolerable with Tylenol or Motrin, for example. If you do choose to use an opioid to treat your pain, use only as prescribed and less if possible. You should be able to stop using the medication after a few days. If not, your doctor may need to see you to make sure there isn't an issue with your recovery causing new symptoms or unexpected pain.

Pain is good

As we discuss the opioid epidemic in Minnesota, it's important to talk about pain. Certainly, we do not want our patients to suffer after an injury. As well, chronic pain is a completely different discussion. Today we are focusing on pain from acute injuries. Opioids are necessary for unbearable pain that makes it impossible for a patient to sleep, for example. But, if you are injured, do not expect to have zero pain. In fact, pain is a good thing.

Think of it this way, when you break your leg, you feel pain. Nerve endings are triggered that send warning signals to the brain. From there your body develops ways to handle the pain and also makes decisions based on how your body is feeling. For example, you will lay on the couch and rest, instead of pushing yourself to do your laundry or stay up late and work. When you continue to take an opioid to eliminate pain, you're not allowing your body to develop its own coping skills. You are also feeling good and more apt to push your body in ways that compromise the healing process.

Be a proactive patient

When you understand the value of pain, you are more likely to take a different approach to managing that pain. If you are injured and prescribed an opioid, understand that you may need to take that medication to get through the first few days of the healing process and that's OK. But, also be mindful of your pain. Take the least amount of medication necessary to feel comfortable and wean off to over-the-counter medications as soon as possible. Contact your doctor if your feeling increased pain as that may signify an issue with your recovery. Also, be sure to responsibly dispose of your unused opioid medications.