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Prescription Pain Killers: A treatment of last resort

By Clark Zimmerman, LAc. 

Pain is part of being human.  We all have to deal with pain of varying degrees throughout our lives.  When pain is minor most people can continue on with their regular activities without much trouble.  When pain becomes more severe most people reach for an over-the-counter medication such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen.  These medications can offer some relief, and allow people to continue on with their normal activities.  When these medications are not successful in alleviating pain most people go to their doctor and get a prescription for opiate pain medications, such as Vicodin or oxycontin.  These medications can be helpful in some situations by providing relief while a person heals enough that their pain diminishes to a manageable level.  Unfortunately they do not address the underlying issue which causes the pain, such as muscle tension or strains, inflammation or a misalignment of bones. Opiate pain relievers also can cause some significant side effects, including constipation, nausea/vomiting and drowsiness.  They can also mask the pain to the degree that someone continues to do certain activities that may make an underlying injury or imbalance worse.   One of the biggest drawbacks of opiate use is their high risk of addiction.  According to a recent NPR story, Oregon has the unfortunate distinction of being the national leader in non medical use of opioids:

In 2012, about 1 in 4 Oregonians received an opioid prescription — more than 900,000 people.  The state also currently leads the nation in non-medical use of opioids, and about a third of the hospitalizations related to drug abuse in Oregon are because of opioids. 

Another problem with opiates is that over time patients develop a tolerance for the drugs that create a need for a larger dose to achieve the same pain relief.  This leads to an increased likelihood of developing an addiction that can linger even after the initial pain has been alleviated.  Prescription pain killers can also make people more sensitized to pain causing people to experience an increase in pain levels over time.   

While opiates do have their place in treatment, the high risks involved in their usage should make them a treatment of last resort.  Instead people suffering from pain should try some of the simpler options first such as ice, rest, stretching, proper posture and exercise.  Massage, acupuncture, physical therapy and chiropractic can also be used to help treat the underlying problem and help to heal the cause of the pain in a more holistic and permanent way.  If these less risky and more deliberate methods do not succeed to lower pain levels, then pain killers can be a possible addition to the treatment plan for short term use. 

addiction, drugs, pain