Your Health

Are opioids considered unsafe when prescribed for chronic pain?

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, even when patients take prescribed opioid pain medications such as oxycodone, hydrocodone, Vicodin and methadone exactly as their physician recommends, there is still a risk of potentially fatal respiratory depression.

Opioids also present a risk for side effects such as physical dependence, nausea, confusion, vomiting, drowsiness, dry mouth and constipation, in addition to withdrawal effects when stopping opioid medications. Opioids are as highly addictive as heroin and alter brain function in much the same way.

With consideration of the hazards of the long-term use of opioids, the CDC advises prescribing physicians to use nonpharmaceutical methods to control and reduce chronic pain before prescribing opioids. One effective method of long-term chronic pain management is physical therapy.

From medication therapy to drug abuse

Primary-care physicians report that one out of every four patients prescribed opioids for long-term chronic pain struggle with addiction to pain medications. This can result in patients’ inability to stop taking the drug, and often patients take too many pills or take them too often. More than 1,000 people are treated daily in hospital emergency rooms for opioid overdose.

Approximately 165,000 deaths related to opioid overdose have been recorded since 1999. Heroin overdoses quadrupled between 2002 and 2014. People addicted to prescription opioids are 40 times more likely to become addicted to heroin. It is no wonder the hazards of prescription opioid addiction have become national news.

Effective management without addictive drugs

As a result of the CDC’s findings, the release of an official statement in March advises physicians treating patients for cancer-related chronic pain, palliative care or end-of-life care – all appropriate conditions for opioid treatment. Using an effective and safer alternative treatment like physical therapy should be the preferred treatment for all other chronic pain management conditions.

The CDC guidelines state that treatments for chronic pain management like physical therapy are safer for effectively managing chronic pain. Even with the treatment of the severe conditions noted above, the CDC advises a pairing of opioid therapy with nonopioid therapy. CDC officials suggest trying alternative nonopioid physical therapy first.

A national public awareness campaign for educating people about the growing epidemic of opioid addiction created by prescription drugs is the focus of October National Physical Therapy Month. Reducing the opioid addiction epidemic by using alternative methods of treatment for chronic pain – like physical therapy – the campaign aims to open the hearts, minds and eyes of the public.

The CDC’s slogan is “Don’t Just Mask the Pain, Treat It.” It makes sense to avoid side effects and risks such as depression, overdose, addiction and withdrawal when discontinuing opioid use, not to mention the link between opioid use and heroin addiction.

If you would like to help, let the people you care about know that they can choose physical therapy for safe pain management.

Kim Gladfelter is owner, physical therapist and Pilates instructor at PhysioFit Physical Therapy & Wellness, 1000 Fremont Ave., Suite 108, Los Altos. For more information, call 887-6046 or visit

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