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