Weighing the Benefits and Side Effects of Opioids

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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Chronic pain affects more Americans than diabetes, cancer, and heart disease combined. And living in pain can make everything in your life harder. Over time, it can have a huge impact on your quality of life. Many people turn to over-the-counter pain relievers, but for severe pain, those may not be enough. Eventually, it might be time to turn to prescription painkillers.

Opioids are an effective and popular prescription option for relieving many types of pain—whether it’s temporary, like pain experienced after surgery or during cancer treatment, or chronic, like lingering pain from an accident or an unknown cause. According to the Mayo Clinic, about 5 to 8 million Americans use opioids for chronic pain. Opioids are a class of drugs that include oxycodone (OxyContin, Oxecta, Roxicodone), hydrocodone (Hysingla ER, Zohydro ER), codeine, morphine (Astramorph, Avinza, Kadian), fentanyl (Actiq, Duragesic, Fentora), and others. They are derived from the poppy plant and their use dates back centuries.

However, opioids aren’t a perfect fix for pain—while they do alleviate suffering, they’re accompanied by unpleasant side effects and the serious risk of addiction or abuse. When deciding if opioids are the right choice for you, make an educated decision by considering the benefits and drawbacks of these drugs.

Benefits of Opioids

Opioids, when taken as directed, can effectively help relieve all kinds of pain. Opioids work by attaching to proteins in your body called opioid receptors to reduce your perception of pain. Essentially, opioids help your body to not feel pain as intensely. Numerous studies have confirmed that opioids are effective at relieving pain for patients with cancer, low back pain, peripheral neuropathy, and other painful conditions. Relieving severe and chronic pain can improve sleep, appetite, energy levels, mood, and overall quality of life. Those suffering from chronic pain know just how life changing it can be to effectively reduce pain over the long-term.

Side Effects of Opioids

While opioids may effectively relieve pain, they come with quite a bit of drawbacks. As many as 80% of patients taking opioids experience at least one side effect. The most common side effects are gastrointestinal, like constipation, nausea, and vomiting. Side effects related to the central nervous system are also common, like impaired concentration, confusion, sleep problems, and memory problems. Opioids may also cause dry mouth, excessive sweating, weight gain, drowsiness, loss of appetite, sexual dysfunction, and dry skin.

Many of these side effects tend to go away eventually; however, opioid-induced constipation (OIC) has not been found to improve over time while you are taking an opioid. And unfortunately, constipation is considered the most common side effect of opioid use: studies have shown between 25 and 50% of patients taking opioids for long-term use develop OIC. Because of this, your doctor will most likely take proactive measures to prevent or alleviate constipation before you’ve even started taking opioids. This may mean that, along with the opioid, you’ll also take a daily stool softener or bowel stimulant. And these preventative measures should always include drinking plenty of water, exercising regularly, and eating a healthy diet. It’s important to follow your doctor’s recommendations, because although there are many over-the-counter options available to treat constipation, some of the most commonly used ones can actually make OIC worse.

Recently, several new drugs have come to the market that can relieve opioid-induced constipation. These include naloxegol (Movantik), methylnaltrexone bromide (Relistor), and lubiprostone (Amitiza). Each drug works differently to counteract the constipation often experienced with opioids. If preventative measures like stool softeners aren’t working, these new medications may offer you relief.

While unpleasant, most of the side effects from opioid use are not dangerous. However, there are some serious risks to consider. Long-term opioid use can lead to respiratory depression—a decrease in your ability to breathe properly. You can minimize your risk of respiratory depression by avoiding alcohol and certain drugs. And people taking opioids for extended periods of time may experience dependence, which means their bodies develop a tolerance to the drugs and they need a higher dose to receive the same amount of relief. This also means that stopping the drug can result in unpleasant withdrawal symptoms. And with higher doses of opioids come a higher likelihood of experiencing side effects and even developing an opioid addiction.

Opioid addiction and abuse is a serious concern. Opioid pain relievers are the most widely abused controlled prescription drugs in the United States. Two-thirds of heroin addicts began their struggle as lawful prescription opioid users.  Abuse of these medications by patients and household members causes more unintentional overdose deaths than any other drug in our country. That’s why doctors must carefully and frequently monitor their patients on opioids. You may be asked to agree to a contract between you and your doctor that clearly outlines the rules you must follow in order to continue receiving your painkilling medicine.

Consider Your Options

Because opioids come with serious side effects and can lead to abuse or addiction, it’s important that patients understand the risks and benefits of taking these drugs. Discuss your concerns with your physician, and if together you determine that opioids are the best choice for relieving your pain, make sure to plan ahead to prevent negative side effects.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2022 Mar 1
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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