Prescription Opioids: The Basics
Prescription opioids can be used to treat moderate-to-severe pain and are often prescribed following surgery or injury, or for health conditions such as cancer. The most commonly prescribed opioids include the following:
- Hydrocodone (Vicodin®)
- Oxycodone (OxyContin®, Percocet®)
- Oxymorphone (Opana®)
- Morphine (Kadian®, Avinza®)
When the Prescription Becomes the Problem
In recent years, there has been a dramatic increase in the acceptance and use of prescription opioids for the treatment of chronic, non-cancer pain, such as back pain or osteoarthritis, despite serious risks and the lack of evidence about their long-term effectiveness.
In addition to the serious risks of addiction, abuse, and overdose, the use of prescription opioids can have a number of side effects, even when taken as directed:
- Tolerance—meaning you might need to take more of the medication for the same pain relief
- Physical dependence—meaning you have symptoms of withdrawal when the medication is stopped
- Increased sensitivity to pain
- Nausea, vomiting, and dry mouth
- Sleepiness and dizziness
- Low levels of testosterone that can result in lower sex drive, energy, and strength
- Itching and sweating
There were nearly five times the number of overdose deaths involving prescription opioids in 2020 than in 1999. In 2020, almost 24% of all U.S. opioid overdose deaths involved a prescription opioid. More than 263,000 people have died in the United States from overdoses involving prescription opioids since 19991. Overdose is not the only risk related to prescription opioids. Anyone who takes prescription opioids can become addicted to them.
Talk to Your Doctor
Talk to your doctor about ways to manage your pain that do not involve prescription opioids. Some of these options may actually work better and have fewer risks and side effects. Depending on the type of pain you are experiencing, options may include:
- Acetaminophen (Tylenol®) or ibuprofen (Advil®)
- Cognitive behavioral therapy – a psychological, goal-directed approach in which patients learn how to modify physical, behavioral, and emotional triggers of pain and stress
- Exercise therapy, including physical therapy
- Medications for depression or for seizures
- Interventional therapies (injections)
- Exercise and weight loss
- Other therapies such as acupuncture and massage
Your health and safety are important. Start the conversation with your doctor [PDF] and work together to set pain management goals and develop a treatment plan that will help you. Follow-up if your pain is not resolving as quickly as expected.
If you are struggling, there is hope. Recovery is possible.
- Facts and Recommendations for Individuals and Families (Surgeon General)
- Mental Health and Addiction Insurance Help (HHS)
This site can help consumers solve insurance coverage issues related to mental health and substance use disorders.
- Wide-ranging online data for epidemiologic research (WONDER). Atlanta, GA: CDC, National Center for Health Statistics; 2021. Available at http://wonder.cdc.gov.