The Truth About Opioids

By Clark Zimmerman, LAc

My grandmother was never a fan of air conditioning.  I remember visiting her farm in the heat of summer and spending a lot of my time swimming in the pond, rather than sweating buckets inside the house.  Though my mom insisted it was because she had lived through the depression and didn’t want to spend the money, grandma insisted that air conditioning made you more sensitive to the heat.  “If you just learn to tolerate the heat, and drink iced drinks or go swimming” she reasoned, “than there is no real need for air conditioning.”  I thought of my grandma’s wisdom while reading a recent study by Peter M. Grace and Linda R. Watkins of the University of Colorado.  The study found that opiate pain medications, such as morphine, oxycodone, and Vicodin can have the “devastating consequences of making pain worse and longer lasting”.  Like my grandmother’s opinion of air conditioning, it seems that rather than effectively treating pain, opioids often can help us feel more comfortable in the short term, but can cause lasting sensitivity to pain.

As opiate addiction continues to grow in the U.S., and deaths from overdose by opioids become more common, people are beginning to ask if the benefits of opioids are worth the risks that are involved. This recent study is the latest bit of evidence that something needs to change.  The healthcare community is truly beginning to evaluate when to use opiate medications and when other treatment options would be more appropriate.  This latest research suggests that the conditions that can benefit from opiate use are not as numerous as we once believed.  In my practice, I have seen many people who began using opiate pain killers to treat a traumatic injury or a nagging condition with the belief that things would quickly improve and the pain medication would no longer be necessary.  When the pain lingers because their injury is not properly addressed or because their lifestyle that contributes to their pain is not altered, they become dependent on the medication.  This results in the unfortunate situation of needing more medication to achieve the same amount of pain relief, which can easily lead to opiate addiction.  Another thing worth mentioning is that the body experiences pain to help get your attention.  If, for instance, you tear a muscle lifting a heavy box, you feel pain so that we know to quit using that muscle until it heals.  If you cover up the pain with medication, sometimes it allows you to keep doing physical work that your body cannot perform.  This can often result in more damage to your body.

I believe that opiate pain medications are often prescribed when other treatments  such as ice/heat, rest, massage, acupuncture, chiropractic/osteopathic manipulations, physical therapy, or herbal preparations would be a better choice.  These treatments attempt to address the underlying problem that is causing the pain, rather than cover up the pain in general.  It seems that we are coming to a point as a society where this issue cannot be ignored any longer.  Opiate pain treatments do have a place, but only in very specific situations of severe and otherwise untreatable pain, and only under the close supervision of a skilled and attentive medical practitioner.  Not only is widespread opiate  medication creating problems in our communities, it now appears that it is largely ineffective.

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