3 Things You Need to Know About Opioid Pain Meds

By Janice Reynolds, RN, Guest Columnist

A recent guest column on PNN suggested that we need to admit opioid medications are dangerous.  Yes, they can be dangerous, but the bigger question is why are they singled out for “special” treatment? 

All medications have the potential to be dangerous, yet opioids are the only class of medication being treated as if they are the gateway to Armageddon.  Due to “fake news” and “alternative facts,” many see opioids as bad for acute pain, as well as persistent pain.

This hysteria has even affected the use of opioids to treat non-pain medical conditions -- one being as a first line therapy for potential heart attack or heart failure. Opioids cause blood vessels to dilate and lower blood pressure; getting more oxygen to the heart, decreasing anxiety, and reducing the risk of a heart attack. 

Chemotherapy drugs and bio-therapies are all very dangerous medications, causing a variety of injurious side effects, as well as secondary cancers in some cases.  Generally, when given in a hospital setting, precautions are needed to prevent others from being exposed to them. Typically, these are used for cancer, but they also have non-cancer uses and for some pain syndromes; such as methotrexate for rheumatoid arthritis. 

After a cancer is cured or in remission, many patients are left with pain disorders caused by the cancer or medication.  Because they no longer are seeing an oncologist, many recovering cancer patients are not able to get their “chronic pain” treated, especially with opioids.

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen have long been known to be dangerous. They are black boxed by the FDA for cardiac events and gastrointestinal bleeding. Nephrologists will tell you they are the leading cause of chronic kidney failure. They can also potentiate heart failure. 

These side effects are not from overdosing, but can occur even when taken as prescribed.  Most side effects are not even included on the label of over-the-counter ibuprofen. It has been estimated 20,000 people a year die from ibuprofen. 

As a colleague said to me years ago, “If I prescribe an NSAID and the person dies, nothing will happen to me.  If I prescribe an opioid and they die I will be investigated.”

Safety is a huge issue with any medication, especially in older adults. As we age, our metabolic and elimination systems become less effective, and there is an increase in comorbid conditions that frequently results in more medications. 

The Beers Criteria has been around since 1991, with the last revision in 2012.  It lists medications which should not be used or rarely used by older adults.  These are medications that are inappropriate, potentially dangerous, and can worsen serious health conditions.  The list is evidenced based. NSAIDs are on it (and have been for a long time) while opioids, except for Demerol and Darvon (no longer on the market), are not. A few other medications used for pain, such tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) are on the list as well. 

Taken in excess, acetaminophen (Tylenol) can damage the liver, heart medications can permanently damage the heart, and blood pressure medication or any drug which causes sedation can lead to death.  

Drug Interactions

Overdose deaths involving opioids are nearly always in someone who is opioid naïve or taken in combination with other medications or alcohol. Interactions between alcohol and other medications can frequently cause problems and may even be fatal.  

If alcohol and opioids are taken together and a problem develops, why is the opioid held at fault? Medications which cause sedation are the likeliest culprits to cause a fatal interaction with opioids. Alcohol interacts with nearly all medications, some worse than others. 

Other medication interactions can increase how a drug works or decrease its effectiveness.  NSAIDs and many other non-opioid pain medications have a higher risk profile for interacting with other drugs. TCA and anti-arrhythmics have a fatal interaction potential, for example.  Pregablin (Lyrica) has 26 potential major interactions.  NSAIDs interact with several medications, including antidepressants (SSRIs) and anticoagulants.

Opioids do not by themselves cause addiction. However, some people have the potential to become addicted to them, especially if they have an addictive personality.  Many other medications can also lead to addiction, such as benzodiazepines, barbiturates, amphetamines (e.g. Adderall), and caffeine.  Alcohol and nicotine are the leading potentially addictive drugs.

Physical dependence should never be confused with addiction, as they are two separate issues.  This misunderstanding about opioids and addiction has been long standing.  Many of us who have cared for dying patients have had a family member worry about their loved one becoming addicted, even when days away from death.

Opioids have a long history of relieving pain and it is untrue there is a lack of evidence concerning their use.  One of the difficult things with any medication, including opioids, is the fact that not everyone responds to them the same way or at the same dose.  For example, while some will respond to opioids for fibromyalgia or migraines, most do not.

The most insulting, cruel, demeaning and wrong thing someone can say to a person in pain is “You only think it works for you.”

There is no pain syndrome called “chronic pain.” And separating non-cancer pain from cancer-related pain is irresponsible and morally wrong. 

From the Journal of Pain Research:

"These claims are primarily philosophical, rather than medical or physiologic. As mentioned, pain mechanisms do not discriminate between cancer and noncancer pathophysiology. Patients with cancer or those without cancer have essentially identical pain-generating physiologies, and thus the same mechanisms for the development of their pain (eg, inflammatory pain in a cancer patient will be the same physiological process as in a noncancer patient). Further, cancer patients are living longer and their original pain generators become chronic pain in and of themselves, little different from patients without cancer."

So why should we have this discussion? Three reasons:

  1. It is said we should accept erroneous beliefs and statements because this is what “everyone” believes based on opioid phobia, and to not do so would make us appear stupid. But who is being stupid here?
  2. To emphasize the fact that no other medication is being restricted and villainized the way opioids are. This is based on opioid phobia, and the prejudice and bigotry shown towards people in pain.  Benefits and risks are a discussion between the patient and a knowledgeable provider, and should not be the purview of regulators, the media, politicians or opioid-phobics. 
  3. Everyone needs to be knowledgeable about the dangers associated with medications. Few providers do a good job catching potentially dangerous interactions.

The worst case scenario is that people in pain are dying and some are being arrested after being denied effective treatment in emergency rooms.

I repeat: The benefits and risks of opioids need to be left to the patient and their doctor.

Janice Reynolds is a retired nurse who specialized in pain management, oncology, and palliative care. She has lectured across the country at medical conferences on different aspects of pain and pain management, and is co-author of several articles in peer reviewed journals. 

Janice has lived with persistent post craniotomy pain since 2009.  She is active with The Pain Community and writes several blogs for them, including one on cooking with pain. 

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.