Opioids as a last resort

The cost of failure can mean lost lives, broken families and bleak futures. While we can’t change the past, we can educate ourselves and work toward eliminating this crisis in our area.

Opioids as a last resort

Ijeoma Ifeanyi-Nwanze, M.D., of Meritus Pain Specialists, says opioids are not inherently bad. In fact, they are useful, strong medications that don’t cause specific organ toxicity when used correctly for short-term pain management.

“However, opioid therapy is not, and should not be, the first-line solution for chronic pain,” says Dr. Nwanze. “The key is to use opioids for no more than seven days.”

When patients take opioids for too long, the body’s tolerance increases and higher doses are needed to achieve the same effect. Without intervention, this escalation will lead to dependence and eventually overdose.

Providers can help

Many struggle with opioid issues simply because they don’t realize how many alternative, non-opioid, pain relief options there are. Some are unwilling to try other options because they think it’s not what they need or believe they won’t work for their needs.

“It takes five minutes to write a prescription, while a conversation on long-term therapy and pain solutions for chronic pain takes much longer,” says Dr. Nwanze. For physicians and patients, this is time well-invested to discover the true source of the chronic pain.

Dr. Nwanze recommends physicians refer their patients to pain management specialists if the patients are experiencing pain for more than one week. She also believes providers should offer opioids only after all other therapies have been explored.

“A lot of people here are dependent on opioids, so we want to avoid exacerbating the issue in every way we can,” she says.

Effective alternatives

There are many non-opioid alternatives for patients struggling with chronic pain. Depending on the pain source, doctors and pain management specialists can recommend therapies such as:

  • Physical therapy
  • Water therapy
  • Massage therapy
  • Anti-inflammatory agents
  • Neuropathic agents
  • Myofascial pain medications
  • Steroid injections
  • Spinal cord stimulator therapy

“Lack of sleep or a person’s emotional state can cause pain to be worse, which is why pain is so different for everyone,” says Dr. Nwanze. “Even a bad mood can make your pain experience much worse.”

To help reduce negative feelings that may come with physical pain, consider positive activities like spending time with family and friends, going for a walk outdoors or playing with a pet.

What can be done?

If you have an opioid prescription, keep it in a safe place to protect vulnerable young children and teenagers from exposure. Talk to your family openly about the dangers of abuse of prescription painkillers.

“If a doctor gives you an opioid prescription as a first line of pain management, consider refusing,” suggests Dr. Nwanze. “If you do accept it, please don’t take it if you don’t need it.”

Meritus Health, at 11116 Medical Campus Road, east of Hagerstown, is the largest health system in the area, providing hospital and outpatient services to the community. Subscribe to Your Health Matters, a monthly e-newsletter with important health information, at