Pain overview

Will I get addicted to pain medications such as codeine, morphine, or oxycodone?

Pain medications like codeine, morphine, and oxycodone are classified as narcotics or opioids. If you take these types of medications, there is a risk that you will become physically dependent on them. What that means is that if you stop using them, you will experience unpleasant withdrawal symptoms as your body adapts to no longer having the medication in your system. This is different from addiction.

When you are addicted, you crave the medication and act compulsively in order to keep using it. Though fear of addiction keeps many people from trying pain medication, addiction is actually rare among those who take opioids to control pain and have no history of prior problems with drug abuse or other addictions.

If my pain is not controlled, can I take more of my pain medication?

If your pain is not controlled, the first thing you should do is talk to your doctor or to a pharmacist. Only take medication as prescribed by your doctor. And do not change how you are taking your medication without talking with your doctor.

If you are taking pain medications regularly, your doctor may have prescribed you a short-acting pain reliever to take to treat breakthrough pain. Breakthrough pain is severe pain that flares up even if you are taking pain medication regularly and as directed.

Why do I need to take higher and higher doses of pain medication to control my pain?

If you need to take medication for pain for a long period of time, you may require higher doses over time to achieve the same level of pain control. This is called tolerance and is not the same as addiction.

With tolerance, your dose of pain medication may not work as well or for as long as it used to. Tolerance to the pain-reducing effects does not happen to everyone. If you think it might be happening to you, contact your doctor. Do not change the way you take your pain medications without talking to your doctor.

Don't pain medications cause considerable side effects?

Like any medication, pain medications can cause side effects. Common side effects of opioids include drowsiness, constipation, nausea, vomiting, and skin itching. These side effects may be worse for people with certain underlying conditions. Serious side effects (slowed breathing, coma) are possible if you take too much pain medication, so always take your medication exactly as directed by your physician.

How can I deal with the side effects of narcotic pain medications?

In many cases, the side effects of pain medication can be managed. There may be simple ways to reduce the impact of common side effects, like adjusting the dosage or taking alternate medications. For certain side effects, like constipation, you may need to make changes to your diet or take a stool softener or a laxative. Speak with your doctor about your concerns.

What should I do if I have a serious side effect from my medication?

If a side effect is serious, do not hesitate to call 9-1-1 as soon as possible. If a side effect is not life-threatening, speak to your doctor or pharmacist as soon as possible to address your concerns. You can also report side effects to the MedEffect™ Canada website.

What's the safest and most effective way to stop using pain medications?

Do not stop taking your medication without speaking to your doctor first. Because of the risk of unpleasant withdrawal symptoms, you should slowly reduce your use of pain medication under your doctor's supervision.

What's the difference between NSAIDs and acetaminophen?

NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications) and acetaminophen are the two most common types of non-opioid pain medications. NSAIDs include ibuprofen, acetylsalicylic acid (ASA), and naproxen. This class of medications reduces pain by blocking certain processes that cause pain and inflammation. Acetaminophen is an analgesic, meaning it relieves pain by changing the way the body senses pain.

NSAIDs and acetaminophen are available in both over-the-counter and prescription forms. Each type of pain medication comes with potential risks and side effects. Your choice of which to take will depend on your doctor's advice, as well as effectiveness and side effects.

Why was I prescribed an antidepressant to treat my pain?

Antidepressants are sometimes prescribed to treat nerve-related pain such as neuropathy or post-herpetic neuralgia (pain after shingles). Antidepressants are thought to work for nerve-related pain by increasing the levels of two chemicals in the brain, norepinephrine and serotonin, at nerve endings and reducing pain.

Antidepressants may work better for certain types of pain and not as well for others. Like other medications, antidepressants have potential side effects. Speak to your doctor about the option of taking antidepressants for your pain.

Do I have to take medications for pain? What other options are there?

If you prefer to not take pain medication or to supplement your pain medication, you have a number of options. You might choose to consult with a physical therapist for non-medication pain treatments or to pursue these techniques on your own.

  • Ice and heat: Ice reduces inflammation and slows down blood flow to the area where it is applied. Ice is helpful in the day or two after an acute injury or if you have swelling. Heat boosts blood flow to the area of pain or injury. It is put to best use after swelling has gone down.
  • Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS): In this technique, electrodes are attached to the skin around pain points. A mild electrical current is applied, creating a tingling but relaxing sensation.
  • Nerve pathway disruption procedure: The aim of this type of procedure is to block or cut off the pathway of pain signals. This may be done by freezing or destroying particular nerves.
  • Acupuncture: Acupuncture is widely accepted technique originating from traditional Chinese medicine. In the practice, very small, thin needles are placed into specific spots on the body. Research shows that acupuncture triggers the release of some of the body's natural painkillers.
  • Biofeedback: Biofeedback uses electronic devices to measure your heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, and brain activity. The goal of biofeedback is to help you recognize and regulate your reaction to pain signals.