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Learning About Opioids and Acute Pain

What is acute pain?

Pain that starts quickly and lasts for a short time is called acute pain. Examples include pain from an injury or childbirth and pain right after surgery. Acute pain is a normal part of injury and healing.

Why are opioids used for acute pain?

Opioid medicines can treat pain. For acute moderate to severe pain after an injury or a surgery, your doctor may prescribe an opioid to be used for a short time. But opioids can be dangerous. And they may not do a better job of treating pain than non-opioids, like acetaminophen and NSAIDs.

What are the risks?

Opioids are powerful medicines. Taking them for even a short time has risks. Here are some of the risks.

Physical side effects.

Opioids can cause constipation, nausea, and sleepiness.

Problems thinking clearly.

They can affect judgment and decision making. You may not be able to drive or work while taking them.

Increased tolerance.

This happens when your body gets used to the medicine. Over time you need a higher dose to get pain relief.

Physical dependence.

This means that your body starts to need the medicine to feel normal. You may have withdrawal symptoms if you stop taking it or take less of it.

Opioid use disorder.

This means that someone uses opioids even though it causes harm to themselves or others. Moderate to severe opioid use disorder is sometimes called addiction.

Overdose, and even death.

Opioid medicines can cause serious problems, especially if they're misused. You could take too much and have an overdose, and even die.

What should you tell your doctor?

Tell your doctor about medicines, natural health products, and any drugs or alcohol you use. Taking opioids with other substances can cause an overdose. And make sure to tell your doctor if you've ever had problems with alcohol, legal medicines, or illegal drugs. It can increase your risk for more problems.

How can you work with your doctor to manage your pain?

You are the most important part of your healing. You can work with your doctor to manage your pain safely. For example, you can:

  • Set realistic goals with your doctor for pain control.
  • Ask your doctor about taking non-opioids for pain. These may include acetaminophen or NSAIDs.
  • Try things other than medicine. Examples include massage, physiotherapy, heat or cold, and acupuncture.

If you are prescribed an opioid for acute pain, you can expect that your doctor will be careful to help keep you safe. Your doctor may:

  • Prescribe the smallest dose needed to control pain, and for the shortest amount of time possible.
  • Limit the prescription to 3 to 5 days.
  • Require a urine drug test before you start (or while you take) the medicine.
  • Stop the medicine if it's not working as it should.

Where can you learn more?

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