Staying Safe with Prescription Pain Medications

PfD blog image_June

Justin joined the Navy a few years ago, right out of high school. He’s proud to be a Sailor and has a passion for his work. After experiencing an unfortunate on-the-job injury, he goes to his nearest military treatment facility (MTF) for treatment and receives a prescription for a pain medication. His injury was serious and he’s been in a lot of pain, so he takes the prescription regularly to minimize the pain as much as he can.

After a week, although the pain is more tolerable, he continues taking the same dosage regularly because he is used to doing so to avoid the pain he was feeling in the couple days after his injury. He considers using his medication less often as he recovers, but he still has medication remaining and wants to do everything he can to remain pain-free.

If you’ve ever been in a car accident, had surgery, or gotten injured, you may understand how Justin is feeling. Being in pain is stressful and can take a toll on you physically and emotionally. Prescription pain medications can feel like a lifesaver in these circumstances. But continuing to take them after most of the pain has diminished can lay an unintentional foundation for misuse or addiction. The following tips can help you can manage your pain without the risk of misuse or addiction.

Understanding What Prescription Opioids are and How They’re Used

Opioids are a type of drug that is naturally found in the opium poppy plant. Prescription opioids may be made from the plant itself or from replication of the chemical makeup of the plant. They are used as pain relievers for moderate to severe pain. They may be prescribed for acute pain such as the temporary pain after a surgery or from an injury, or they may be prescribed for chronic pain conditions such as backache, arthritis, or migraines. Opioids relax the body and affect the brain. When misused, opioids can be addictive like heroin (another opioid). Some commonly prescribed opioids are hydrocodone, oxycodone, morphine, fentanyl and codeine.

Avoiding Unintentional Misuse and Abuse

After an injury or a surgery, some level of pain is expected and normal. The goal should not be to eliminate pain altogether but manage it so that you’re able to function until the pain eventually subsides on its own. In the initial day or two after an injury or surgery, the pain is usually at its worst, but over time, the pain is likely to improve and the need for pain medication should decrease.

A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that for first-time use, the number of days you take the prescription opioids can directly impact if you become a “long-term” user. For individuals who took opioids for eight or more days, 13.5% were still using opioids one year later. For those with a 31+ day prescription, nearly a third were still using them.

A prescription for an opioid does not have to be a one-way ticket to addiction if you are cautious. Certain medications such as antibiotics or antivirals are necessary at a specific dosage for the treatment of illness. Pain medications, however, only aim to alleviate the discomfort associated with an illness, injury, or chronic pain condition. Assess your own pain over time, and ask your health care provider if the prescribed dosage is still necessary for your level of pain.

There are also non-prescription medications that can be used for certain types of pain. Consider over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, to help you minimize prescription medication use, shorten the duration of time on opioids, or avoid it altogether. OTC medications come in various strengths and may be suitable options for pain from broken bones or oral surgery, for example. Studies have indicated that they can provide similar relief to prescription pain medications. Before making the switch, check with your provider to be sure that you don’t have any preexisting conditions that may cause a negative reaction.

Managing Pain Without Drugs

While medications are a quick fix for pain, there are non-pharmaceutical options available as well, particularly for chronic or long-term pain conditions. Comprehensive pain management is a multidisciplinary approach that incorporates physical therapy, relaxation techniques, education and other methods to help manage chronic pain. It focuses on the complex nature of pain and how it affects the physical, emotional, social and psychological health of those experiencing it.

There are various complementary methods for managing chronic pain that all have some evidence of effectiveness. Acupuncture, chiropractic care, heat and cold therapy, massage and gentle yoga are some of many other options for chronic pain management that don’t involve pharmaceuticals.

“Self-managing” pain is all about learning methods to help you manage your pain, “hacks” to incorporate into your current lifestyle and practices to minimize discomfort. It can be a great means of avoiding prescription drug misuse.

Using Prescription Drugs Properly with the 4 Steps

Prescription opioids are safe and helpful when taken for short amounts of time. Follow the Prescription for Discharge campaign’s four steps to avoid misusing prescription drugs:

  • Take Correctly. Taking prescription drugs as prescribed by your health care provider can help prevent potential misuse. Ask your doctor what other options are available to you after the initial pain subsides. It’s also a good idea to ask how long your prescription is valid, which may be different than the printed expiration date.
  • Report Promptly. If you have been prescribed a prescription medication by a non-military provider, you must report it to your chain of command and ensure they are entered into your military health record within ten days.
  • Dispose Properly. Medications that are no longer needed should be properly disposed of to prevent misuse. You can dispose of unused medication at home by placing it in a small plastic bag with an undesirable substance (e.g., kitty litter or used coffee grounds) and throw the bag in the trash. Cross out personal information on your prescription labels before discarding the bottles. You can also dispose of unused medications through secure drop boxes at participating MTFs.
  • Never Share. Ensuring your own proper use of prescription drugs is essential, but it is also important to help prevent misuse among friends, family and shipmates. Even if they’re experiencing similar symptoms, never share your prescription medications or take others’ medications.

Knowing the Signs and Reaching Out for Help

Seeking help promptly is the best thing you can do for health and safety if you think you or someone you know may have a problem with prescription drug misuse. Signs of prescription drug misuse include:

  • Mood swings or hostility
  • Abnormal energy
  • Significant increase or decrease in fatigue or sleep
  • Seeking prescriptions from more than one doctor
  • Asking friends and family members for their medication
  • Claiming that their prescription was lost or stolen

If you recognize these signs within yourself or others, speak with your command Drug and Alcohol Program Advisor (DAPA) or doctor, or call 1-866-U-ASK-NPC.

For more information and tips to use prescription drugs safely, visit http://www.public.navy.mil/bupers-npc/support/21st_Century_Sailor/NAAP/campaign_events/prescription/Pages/default.aspx.

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