An Overlooked Side Effect of Opioid Medications
You’ve surely read lately of the terrible opioid epidemic that is ruining—and taking—so many lives. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that 40 people die each day from an overdose of opioid medications, such as hydrocodone, oxycodone and codeine. The stereotype is of a young user buying these medications on the street, but in fact, many older adults also abuse opioid medications, often having first been prescribed them for a legitimate purpose.
Not so long ago, the thinking was that seniors who used opioids to treat pain would not become addicted. That turned out not to be entirely true. Now, there is an emphasis on “deprescribing”—carefully evaluating whether a patient needs a particular drug. Reports are that some patients who take these medications for legitimate purposes are having trouble obtaining them. Experts say it is a delicate balancing act; under the close supervision of a senior’s doctor, these drugs can be part of an effective pain control strategy.
But beyond the ravages of addiction, opioids can have other dangerous side effects, including liver and kidney problems. And many people are unaware that these drugs are a major risk factor for dangerous falls among older adults. A recent study published by the Canadian Medical Association Journal looked at the records of seniors admitted to the hospital due to falls. The researchers found that patients who had filled an opioid prescription during the previous two weeks were 2.4 times more likely to have suffered a fall injury. And, said the researchers, “Patients whose falls were linked to opioid use were also more likely to die during their hospital stay.”
Opioid medications, when taken as directed and under close supervision of a doctor, can be part of an effective pain medication regimen. But seniors who use these drugs are advised to:
Talk to the doctor about non-opioid medications, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs), the class of drugs that includes aspirin, ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve) and Celebrex. Antidepressant medications and injections also may help. These drugs should be taken only as prescribed.
Learn about alternatives to medication, such as physical therapy, counseling and education, meditation and tai chi, and a full pain management program. Exercise and spending more time with others also have been found to reduce the perception of pain.
Manage medications carefully. Patients who take opioid medications should have the doctor or pharmacist regularly review all their medications. Take them only as prescribed—the amount and in the correct way that the doctor advises. For patients having trouble keeping track of medications, pill boxes, automated reminders, a chart and specially packaged doses may help.
The World Health Organization recently called the effective management of pain “a fundamental human right.” Work with your doctor to create the pain-management strategy that is most effective for you.
The information in this article is not intended to replace the advice of your health care provider. Consult your doctor before starting, stopping or changing the way you take medications.