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What You Need to Know About Taking Pain Medication

Opioids can be beneficial but be aware of the risks

Chronic pain from conditions such as arthritis and diabetes is common as we age, and opioids are often prescribed as the treatment. It’s also typical to have more surgical procedures as we get older, with opioids being the usual treatment for postsurgical pain. Therefore, it’s no surprise that each year an increasing amount of Medicare Part D members are prescribed an opioid.

While opioids can be very effective for managing pain, they can have side effects ranging from dizziness, nausea, and drowsiness to the risk of dependence and addiction. When opioids are used in older adults, seniors have an increased risk for falls and injury, as well as an increased risk for addiction. In fact, Medicare beneficiaries are now the fastest-growing population with diagnosed opioid use disorders. The higher the dosage or the longer you use opioids, the greater the odds are of your experiencing severe side effects and becoming dependent or addicted to the drug. As a result, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) now requires Part D plans to limit prescriptions to a maximum supply of 7 days for patients newly prescribed an opioid.​

These additional tips can also help you use pain medication safely.

  • When discussing potential pain treatment, ask your doctor if there are alternatives to opioids you can use. Let the doctor know if there’s any personal or family history of addiction. If the doctor recommends opioid treatment, ask if you can begin with the lowest dose possible.
  • If you agree to try an opioid, it’s extremely important to use this medication exactly as directed by the doctor.
  • Ask your doctor or pharmacist if you have any questions about the length of time you should take the medication, its side effects and how you should manage them.
  • Don’t mix opioids with alcohol or sedatives such as sleeping pills or anti-anxiety drugs – doing so can be very dangerous to your health. In fact, more than one in five opioid deaths involves alcohol.
  • Opioids can impair your driving so ask your doctor if it’s safe to get behind the wheel.

It’s also very important to keep opioids out of the hands of others since 55% of people who misuse opioids get them from family or friends.

  • Don’t share your pain medication with anyone, even if the person has similar symptoms to your own.
  • Store the medication in a secure place where it’s out of reach of children and out of sight to prevent accidental ingestion or theft.
  • Search “opioid disposal” at to find out how to safely dispose of your unused medication.

If you know someone who is struggling with addiction, visit the National Drug Helpline website or contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration National Helpline
at 1-800-662-4357.

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Getting to Know Your Medications

Tips to avoid harmful interactions and track your medications

More than half of adults 65 and older take four or more prescriptions on a regular basis. It’s no wonder that harmful drug interactions are a major worry for many seniors.

Note: Drug interaction occurs when there is a reaction between two (or more) drugs, or between a drug and a food/beverage or dietary supplement, or between a drug and an existing condition. Drug interactions may make your drug less effective, cause unexpected side effects or increase the action of a particular drug. Some drug interactions can be harmful to you.

Managing so many medications can take a toll on both your health and your wallet. Here are four things you can ask your doctor that can help you better manage both your medication and your money:

  1. Which condition does the medication treat?
    • When your doctor gives you a new prescription, the first thing to ask is which condition it treats.
    • Keep track of your medications with a personal medication record. Include prescription drugs, over-the-counter drugs, vitamins and dietary supplements.
    • Include the drug’s name, strength, dose, when you take it, what it looks like and which condition it treats. Also list the contact information of the doctor who prescribed it, and the date you started taking it.
    • Be sure to update this record whenever your prescriptions change. If you take a generic medication instead of a brand-name medication, note this information.
  2. Will this drug interact in a harmful way with any of my other medications?
    • Make sure your doctors are aware of any medications you currently take before they prescribe a new one.
    • Always ask your doctor if there is anything you should avoid eating or drinking while taking a drug. Some foods and beverages, such as grapefruit or alcohol, can cause harmful interactions with certain medications.

      Tips that can help reduce the risk of a medication error or harmful drug interaction:

      • Take your medication record to medical appointments and share with your doctors. Show it to your pharmacist before filling a prescription.
      • Make a copy of your medication record and carry it with you, such as in your wallet or handbag. Provide the list to a new doctor or pharmacist and have it with you in case of an emergency.
  3. Do I need to take this medication?
    • Review all your medications with your doctors to see if there might be some drugs that you may no longer need.
    • If your doctor can safely reduce the number of drugs you take, the risk of harmful drug interactions will be lower, and you may save money.
  4. Is there a generic equivalent or alternative available that would work for me?
    • Many brand-name drugs have generic versions. One of the easiest ways to cut prescription drug costs is to switch from a brand-name drug to a generic drug.
    • An FDA-approved generic drug is tested for quality and strength and can be expected to work as well as the brand-name version.
    • When your doctor writes a new prescription, ask if a generic drug might be right for you. Generally, your doctor will know if a generic equivalent or generic alternative drug is available in place of the brand medication.
    • The price difference between brand and generic drugs can be significant — it is estimated that you could save at least two thirds of your drug costs if you use generic drugs.

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