What You Need to Know About Taking Pain Medication

Opiods can be beneficial but be aware of the risks

Updated on: June 7, 2018

Originally posted on: December 3, 2015
Dr. Nowak is the Medical Director for the Express Scripts Lab, where she closely collaborates with the Express Scripts Personal Health Solutions team and Therapeutic Resource Center (TRC) specialist pharmacists, researchers and decision designers to implement programs and protocols to continually improve health outcomes for members.

Chronic pain is a common occurrence, especially if you suffer from diabetes, arthritis or another worsening health condition.  While medications may be effective in treating your pain, there can be many risks, especially if you are over 65.

Often doctors prescribe opioid pain relievers rather than over-the-counter medications because opioids can be more effective at relieving pain and are sometimes a safer option for older adults. When used frequently, over-the-counter pain relievers such as aspirin, ibuprofen and naproxen, can cause gastrointestinal bleeding, kidney and cardiovascular problems. That’s not to say prescription opioid pain relievers, such as codeine, morphine, OxyContin® (oxycodone HCI), and Vicodin® (hydrocodone bitartate and acetaminophen) are without side effects.

When used properly, these opioid medications can be beneficial. They help your body’s nervous system respond to pain by reducing the number of pain signals to your brain. Taking this type of medication for short-term relief – for example, after surgery – doesn’t pose a risk. However, if you’re considering opioid therapy on a long-term basis, there are serious risks that you should understand before taking them.

      • Opioids can be highly addictive. Although they are effective in reducing moderate to severe chronic pain, your body can get used to them and, over time, you may need higher doses to achieve the same level of relief.
      • The higher the dosage or the longer you are on opioids, the stronger the side effects can be. This can include drowsiness, which increases a person’s risk for falls. This can lead to a potentially serious injury like a hip fracture.
      • Opioids can also be dangerous if they’re taken with alcohol or with other medications, which result in potentially serious interactions.

What to Consider When Taking Opioids

If you’re taking opioids for pain relief, make sure you regularly consult with your doctor(s) and consider the following information to avoid potential risks:

  • Tell your doctor(s) about all the medications you take (including any over-the-counter medications).
  • Discuss any family or personal history of addiction with your doctor before you begin treatment.
  • If your doctor prescribes an opioid, ask if you can start with the lowest dose to see how your body reacts and if you experience any side effects or complications.
  • Talk to your pharmacist about potential side effects. If you do develop any side effects, talk to your doctor or pharmacist right away. DO NOT stop taking the medication on your own especially if you’ve been taking them for a while and are on a higher dose.
  • Be cautious whenever you start a new treatment. Avoid driving or strenuous activity until you know how the medication will affect you.
  • Ask your doctor(s) about how to prevent constipation and nausea, two of the most common side effects of opioid therapy.
  • If you find that your medication is no longer effective at the dosage you’re taking, talk to your doctor about switching medications or changing your dosage. DO NOT try to adjust the dosage on your own.
  • Safely store your medication away from children and out of view from others to prevent accidental ingestion or theft. When you’ve finished your course of treatment, properly dispose of any leftover pills. Never allow another person to take any of your medications.


Pain is a signal that something is wrong, and it’s important to discuss any chronic pain you’re experiencing with a doctor. As long as you are aware of the risks and take precaution, opioid medications can be a good solution to relieve pain and restore your quality of life.