By James Campbell, MD, Guest Columnist
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently unveiled guidelines for primary care physicians on the use of opioids for chronic pain. Not surprisingly, the guidelines urge physicians to first try non-pharmacologic and non-opioid treatments before resorting to opioid therapy.
If you’re one of the millions of Americans living with pain on a daily basis, it’s likely you’re not a stranger to over-the-counter (OTC), non-prescription pain medications such as naproxen (brand name Aleve), ibuprofen (Advil and Motrin), aspirin and acetaminophen (Tylenol).
In fact, most of my patients with chronic pain began their quest for relief with a cocktail of OTC pain relievers, muscle relaxants and even alcohol, before seeking professional help and eventually graduating to prescription treatments such as opioids, anti-depressants and anticonvulsants.
While OTC pain medications are generally safe when taken at their recommended doses, it’s all too common for patients to unknowingly put themselves at risk of a fatal accidental overdose or serious drug-drug interactions by mixing OTC pain medications or taking them in combination with prescription treatments for pain or other common health conditions.
Given the sheer magnitude of serious adverse events and fatalities associated with opioids, the hidden, yet preventable dangers of the pain medications on your pharmacy shelves are not often discussed.
Let’s take one of the most common OTC pain relievers: acetaminophen. When used as directed within the advised dosing guidelines, acetaminophen is safe and effective. However, if a person takes more than one medication that contains acetaminophen and exceeds the maximum recommended dose, they may be at risk of serious liver damage.
This happens so often that acetaminophen overdose is the leading cause of calls to poison control centers in the United States -- more than 100,000 instances per year – and are responsible for more than 56,000 emergency room visits.
In fact, in 2011, in an effort to reduce the risk of severe liver injury from acetaminophen overdose, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) asked drug manufacturers to limit the strength of acetaminophen in prescription medications, including combination acetaminophen and opioid products, to no more than 325 mg per tablet, capsule or other dosage unit.
Then in 2014, the FDA recommended that health care professionals discontinue prescribing and dispensing prescription combination products that contain more than 325 mg of acetaminophen.
While the FDA’s efforts may help curb accidental overdose related to prescription medications that contain acetaminophen (Tylenol with codeine, for example), it does little to address the risks of OTC acetaminophen or other OTC pain medications such as ibuprofen, a type of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), which can cause gastrointestinal bleeding and injury, and cardiovascular side effects when taken on a chronic basis.
In addition to the risk of overdose, people taking multiple OTC and prescription medications for pain and other conditions are also at risk of serious drug-drug interactions. Simply put, any “drug” – whether it be a medicine, vitamin, supplement or even alcohol – that enters your body and alters your natural internal chemistry has the potential to interact or alter the intended effect or unintended side effect of other medications.
Even though most medications are accompanied by warnings about combining them with other drugs, most vitamins and supplements are not -- so, unless you’re a licensed medical professional, it’s virtually impossible to recognize the potential for drug-drug interactions.
If you’re using OTC medications, whether alone or with prescription medications, to cope with pain on a daily basis, here are three precautionary steps you can take to safeguard yourself against the risk of accidental overdose or drug-drug interactions.
1) Recognize that ALL medications, whether OTC or prescription, can cause harm if used improperly, and the fact that some medications are available without a prescription does not mean they are inherently safe. Read the labels that come with your medications. Tylenol, Advil and Vicodin are household names, so it can be easy to overlook their “generic” names (or the active ingredient in each).
For example, the generic name for Tylenol is acetaminophen, while that of Vicodin is acetaminophen hydrocodone. Without close examination of either label, a person taking Vicodin and Tylenol together could be inadvertently exceeding the recommended dosage of acetaminophen.
2) Consult a medical professional before you take more than one medication on a daily basis. If your chronic pain is being treated by a physician, be sure to tell them (even if it’s on your medical history) about any OTC or prescription medications you are currently taking. This includes vitamins and other supplements that may seem harmless, but could interact with your pain medications.
3) If you are independently treating your chronic pain, make a list of all the medications, vitamins and supplements you take on a regular basis and share them with your local pharmacist. Pharmacists can identify potential drug-drug interactions like taking acetaminophen and ibuprofen on a long-term basis, which can result in an increased risk of developing kidney problems.
The American Chronic Pain Association also recommends using the same pharmacy for all your prescriptions, so that the pharmacist can screen health information and current medications to avoid the pitfalls of overdose and drug interactions.
As a neurosurgeon with a special interest in pain for over 30 years, I’m empathetic to the daily struggle that patients face and their desperate quest for relief, seeking anything and everything that can simply make the pain stop.
For the patients who are fighting this seemingly endless battle with pain without the help of a medical professional, I hope I’ve provided some useful information and practical advice to help avoid serious risks associated with self-medicating. However, people living with moderate to severe chronic pain may benefit from a consultation with a licensed pain management specialist, who can help guide you toward steps that will help reduce your pain.
James Campbell, MD, has spent the last 30 years pioneering efforts to improve the diagnosis and treatment of patients with chronic pain.
Dr. Campbell is professor emeritus of Neurosurgery at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and is the founder of the Johns Hopkins Blaustein Pain Treatment Center - one of the largest pain research centers in the U.S. He is also a former president of the American Pain Society.
The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.