Tips for Managing the Side Effects of Narcotic Painkillers

Boosting your fiber intake is a smart idea when you're on opioids.
If over-the-counter drugs don't deliver enough pain relief, your doctor may prescribe an opioid—a narcotic. Opioids are either refined from the opium poppy plant, or have been artificially created to work in the same way. The most well known is the very powerful drug morphine.

Opioids can drastically lower pain messages being sent by the body to the brain, and then calm the brain's reaction to them—which in turn helps a patient deal better with the pain emotionally. Our bodies produce opioids naturally; we call them endorphins, and they are often associated with pleasurable things like a runner's high or sexual bliss.

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Addicts seek narcotics for a variety of benefits, including a high, although many patients do not experience this effect. Chronic pain patients are generally looking for another kind of relief.

Opioids only help with pain, not its cause
But it's important to remember that opioids only suppress pain. "Opioids don't work on the source of the pain like NSAIDs—which can reduce inflammation—do," says Jeffrey Goldstein, MD, director of the Spine Service at New York University's Hospital for Joint Diseases. "Instead they just mask the pain and help you deal with it."

Unlike NSAIDs, there is no ceiling dose at which opioids stop working. Users can become tolerant and require more for the same effect. (Among addicts, this can lead to phenomenal intake as tolerance builds and the high becomes more elusive.)

Opioids do have side effects
Even when not abused, opioids do have side effects including:

  • Constipation
  • Respiratory depression (slowed rate of breathing, one of the more serious concerns)
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Drowsiness
  • Dizziness
  • Weakness
  • Dry mouth
  • Confusion
  • Difficulty urinating
  • Itching
Since side effects can differ from drug to drug, doctors may rotate patients through different medications.

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Last Updated: May 30, 2008

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