Opioid pain medication: How to protect yourself from addiction and overdose


In June, autopsy results were released for music icon Prince, who was found dead April 21 at his Minneapolis-area home. The results confirmed Prince died of an overdose of fentanyl, a powerful prescription painkiller that’s part of the opioid family.

Sadly, Prince was just the latest victim in the growing opioid epidemic. In 2014, almost 2 million Americans abused opioids or were dependent on them, and more than 14,000 people in the U.S. died from opioid-related overdoses, according to recent annual figures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In fact, opioid-related overdose deaths have quadrupled since 1999, according to the CDC.

Despite those alarming numbers, opioids can be safe and effective for pain control. “Opioid pain medications are very helpful and important for treating acute pain,” says Keith Heinzerling, MD, an internal medicine doctor at the UCLA Family Center. Dr. Heinzerling specializes in addiction medicine and offers the following three strategies to help you stay safe:

  1. Don’t use opioids for long-term pain management.

    The key to safe opioid use is to take the medications in the right way and for the right reasons. If you’re recovering from surgery or a serious injury, opioids are a good choice to control the short-term pain. But taking the drugs for longer periods can be risky.

    People who experience chronic (long-term) pain, such as arthritis or back pain, should think twice about taking opioids, Dr. Heinzerling says. In fact, as many as one in four people who take the drugs for long-term, non cancer pain in primary-care settings struggle with addiction.

    “Even serious acute pain usually improves within a week or two,” Dr. Heinzerling says. If you feel like you need prescription painkillers beyond that point, he recommends talking to your doctor or to a pain medicine specialist about safer alternatives.

  2. Calculate your personal risk.

    In addition to long-term use of opioids, other factors also increase the odds of developing problems with abuse, addiction or overdose. According to Dr. Heinzerling, those risk factors include:

    • Age: Younger people are at a higher risk of developing problems related to opioids
    • Multiple pain problems: People who have several different sources of pain (such as arthritis, fibromyalgia and chronic back pain) are at an increased risk.
    • History of addiction: If you or a close family member has a history of substance abuse or dependence, you’re more likely to develop problems with opioids.
    • Mental health issues: A history of depression or anxiety is also a risk factor for abusing or becoming dependent on opioid painkillers.
    • Dosage amount: The higher the dosage, the greater the risk. Talk to your doctor or a pain medicine specialist to make sure you’re taking the minimum dose necessary to control your pain.
  3. Take opioids safely.

    To make sure you take these drugs safely and responsibly, Dr. Heinzerling recommends following these guidelines:

  • Keep doses as low as possible, and make sure you stay in frequent contact with your doctor or pain medicine specialist.
  • Never take opioids with other substances such as alcohol or sedatives.
  • If you take opioids, keep them safe, secure and out of the reach of children or anyone who might abuse them.
  • If you have leftover medication you no longer need, dispose of it safely. Many sheriffs’ departments, hospitals and pharmacies will collect and dispose small amounts of medication.
  • Ask yourself honestly: “Am I using this drug for things other than pain?” If you’re taking the medicine to relax, de-stress or help you sleep, you might be developing a dependence on the drugs.

If you’re concerned about your use of opioids, make an appointment at the UCLA Center for Behavioral and Addiction Medicine by calling 310-319-4700 or request an appointment online.

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