Are You Reaching for the Right Pain Medication?

The use of opioid painkillers such as Vicodin and Oxycontin is on the rise and this trend is taking its toll. Opioids account for 46 deaths each day in the United States — more than any other drug.

Is your pain medication the best option for you? Depending on the type of pain you’re experiencing, and the duration of your expected treatment, the answer may be “no.”

“Surprisingly, opioids are not very effective pain medications, and they can also have serious side effects,” says Dr. Donald Teater, M.D., medical advisor to the National Safety Council.

Acute pain includes dental pain, back pain, renal colic pain (kidney stones), sprains and fractures. What may be surprising to some is that studies show a combination of over-the-counter acetaminophen and ibuprofen is more effective at relieving acute pain than opioids.

Not only are opioids less effective than NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug) in particular instances, but they also are associated with more serious side effects. Some lesser-known side effects of opioids include gastrointestinal bleeding (more frequently associated with NSAIDS), rapid development of addiction, changes to the brain and cognitive abilities, driving impairment, increased risk of disability and decreased sex hormones.

The elderly need to be particularly wary, as elderly adults taking opioids are at greater risk of having a cardiovascular event, have four times as many fractures than their counterparts not taking opioids, and have an 87 percent greater risk of dying.

If you’re prescribed an opioid pain medication, consider discussing alternatives with your doctor, particularly if you’re treating acute pain. Taking the minimum dose for as short a time period as possible can help reduce your risk.

“Since opioids are often abused illicitly, it is good practice to lock your medicine cabinet and dispose of any leftover medications properly when your course of treatment is over,” says Dr. Teater. “Drug take back programs are the safest, most environmentally-friendly way to clean your medicine cabinet.”

For the latest information on painkiller efficacy and risks, visit

The effects of your painkiller medication may be worse than the pain you’re actually treating. Take steps to treat pain as safely and effectively as possible.


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