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Opioids and Chronic Pain

President Obama recently used one of his weekly addresses to speak about the abuse of and addiction to pain medication. In his address, he shared a startling statistic. In the U.S., drug overdoses now account for more deaths than traffic accidents. Further, opioid-related overdoses have nearly tripled since 2000, with someone dying from an opioid overdose every 19 minutes.

What does this mean to the more than 100 million Americans dealing with chronic pain, or pain that lasts longer than six months? Are opioids safe? Are there viable alternatives?

Managing chronic pain is not impossible, but it does take some trial and error. Sometimes opioids may be necessary to treat acute pain, and when taken exactly as directed by your doctor, they can be very safe. But there may be other alternatives that can help.

The most common types of chronic pain are backaches, headaches, and joint pain. Symptoms can range in intensity from inconvenient to debilitating. Opioids are a powerful narcotic that can reduce and block pain signals. And though they can be helpful in treating acute pain, opioids carry a strong risk of dependency. For long-term pain management, some studies debate their efficacy.

The most important step a person with chronic pain can take is seeing a doctor who can get to the root of the illness. For those people with chronic back pain, visiting your primary care physician should be the first step. He or she can examine you and often diagnose and begin to treat the problem. If they are unable to make any progress with your treatment, they will be able to send you to a specialist, such as an orthopedist, who specializes in diseases of the spine and other components of the musculoskeletal system.

When you have a diagnosis, make a plan with your specialist to alleviate chronic pain. This plan might include lifestyle changes to decrease your symptoms—walking or light exercise such as yoga to keep your body from getting stiff. It might also include avoiding foods that bring on pain, like wine and cheese for people with migraines, or sugar and dairy for those with arthritis. It might also include a plan to get more – and better quality -- sleep.

In many instances, chronic pain can be improved with physical and occupational therapy. Physical therapists can show you exercises to stretch and strengthen areas of your body, while occupational therapists can teach you new ways to complete daily tasks in a more ergonomic way—such as cooking and cleaning.

If after making modifications to your lifestyle, you still experience chronic pain, it may be time to contact a pain specialist. A pain specialist can provide insights into new and different treatments that may help your illness.

If you or a loved one are experiencing chronic pain, don’t wait to check in with a doctor. Sustained physical pain can be extremely taxing; a person’s emotional health often suffers. Studies show that the emotional toll of chronic pain can actually exacerbate the pain. Anxiety and depression can decrease the amount of natural painkillers produced by the body, while also further intensifying painful sensations.

If you or a loved one is suffering from chronic pain, make sure to reach out to your doctor. If you don’t have a primary care physician, El Camino Hospital’s Find a Doctor search tool can help. El Camino Hospital also a Pain Management Program designed specifically to help reduce and manage all types of pain.

This article first appeared in the June 2016 edition of the HealthPerks newsletter.

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