Analgesics can relieve arthritis pain when used safely.
Some medicines combine acetaminophen with an opioid for added pain relief. But two opioids should never be taken together.
The use of opioids for chronic, non-cancer pain is controversial. But the drugs are an important treatment option for people with uncontrolled arthritis pain, particularly if they cannot take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Because of potential for side effects and accidental overdoses, opioids are tightly regulated.
Benefits and Risks
Analgesics can be life-changing for people with arthritis, relieving pain and making it possible to work, do daily activities and maintain a level of activity needed for good health. But they also carry risks, particularly if not used carefully. Here’s what you need to know about both types of analgesics.
Benefits and Risks
Benefits: For many people, acetaminophen provides pain relief without the stomach upset and other common side effects of NSAIDs. For that reason, it’s often the first pain treatment of choice, particularly for pain not related to inflammation and for people who can’t take NSAIDs. When taken according to instructions on the label, it is generally safe.
Risks: Because acetaminophen is a common ingredient in many products, it’s possible to get too much if you are already taking it for pain and are not diligent about reading ingredient labels. When taken in too-high doses or along with alcohol, it can cause severe liver damage, which can be fatal.
Benefits: Like your body’s natural endorphins, opioids dull pain perception and promote feelings of pleasure and well-being, mainly when used short term. This makes them particularly beneficial for acute pain, such as the pain from surgery, a broken bone or an acute flare of arthritis.
Risks: Over time, your body develops a tolerance for opioids. That means it takes larger doses of the drugs to achieve the same results. In some cases, the pleasurable feelings that the drugs promote lead to addiction – a craving for the drug’s effects despite negative consequences. By acting on pain receptors in the brain, opioids slow breathing. Taking too high of a dose, or taking them with other drugs that slow breathing, can be fatal.
Side Effects and Solutions
• Limit alcohol intake to no more than two drinks a day.
• If you take opioids regularly, see your doctor frequently for monitoring.
• Use a single provider for opioid prescriptions and a single pharmacy to fill them.
• Let all your doctors know you are taking an opioid, particularly before they prescribe a new medication.
• Avoid alcohol if you are taking an opioid.
• Don’t stop taking an opioid abruptly. Your doctor will need to slowly taper the dose to help you avoid withdrawal symptoms.
Taking opioid analgesics at higher doses than your doctor prescribes or combining them with other drugs – including alcohol – that affect the central nervous system can potentially lead to fatal overdoses.
Using opioid analgesics carries a risk of addiction and/or overdose. Your doctor may order regular urine tests to check for treatment compliance.
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