10 Questions to Ask Before Taking Opioid Painkillers
One of the critical factors that created America’s current addiction epidemic was an increase in prescribing opioid painkillers during the 1990s and 2000s. Suddenly, millions of Americans were receiving opioids for legitimate pain concerns. Unfortunately, millions became addicted to these drugs, sometimes getting them illegally or turning to heroin or illicit synthetic opioids when their prescription ran out.
In recent years, doctors have somewhat curbed their prescribing habits, and many drug manufacturers that pressured doctors into overprescribing have been held accountable in civil litigation. However, millions of Americans still struggle with pain and need better solutions.
Ten Questions to Ask Your Doctor About Opioid Painkillers
If a doctor suggests a patient take opioid pharmaceuticals, the patient should ensure they are fully informed and well-educated before saying yes to the prescription. Here are ten questions patients should ask when considering opioids:
1. “What might the harmful side effects of painkillers be?”
The most harmful side effects of painkillers are addiction and death, but there are other side effects too, some of which are short-term (occurring during and after use) and others of which are long-term (occurring after repeated, ongoing use of the drug). Side effects from opioid use – even when used as prescribed – can include dizziness, drowsiness, weakness, nausea, and constipation. Patients should talk to their doctor about these effects and become fully informed about them before proceeding.
2. “How long will I need to be on them?”
Misuse of opioids led to the drug overdose crisis in the U.S., with most overdoses today involving opioids. The longer one takes these drugs, the greater likelihood they may experience an adverse effect, like an overdose. Patients should question their doctor about the duration of the prescription and be very clear on how long they’ll be on the painkiller. The goal should always be the lowest dosage for the briefest duration possible to accomplish the desired pain relief results.
3. “What signs of dependence should I watch out for?”
Addiction to one’s medication does not occur overnight, yet one in four pain patients develops an opioid addiction. How such addiction manifests, and what signs of it crop up will likely differ from one patient to the next, which is why patients should be very clear on what addiction looks like and what signs to look for.
4. “What alternatives are there?”
There are pain relief alternatives to opioid painkillers, including holistic remedies, supplements, massage, diet, exercise, and even surgery. Patients should talk to their doctor about them. A tailored pain management regimen may be a better solution for a patient than opioids.
5. “When can I see you again for a follow-up?”
Patients should never accept a prescription for opioid painkillers without securing a follow-up appointment with their doctor. The follow-up can be used to check in with one’s doctor and discuss how the painkiller regimen is going.
6. “Should I take this if I have a history of substance abuse?”
Patients with a history of substance abuse should rarely take opioid painkillers, so patients should be sure to mention this to their doctor if it applies to them.
7. “What about these other medications I’m taking? Should I be taking opioids on top of that?”
Patients should always tell their doctor about other prescriptions they may be taking, especially those prescribed to treat anxiety, sleeping problems, or seizures. Other medications could adversely interact with opioids, causing serious side effects and unwanted outcomes.
8. “What’s my dosage and how many days do I need to take it?”
This is one of the most important questions to ask your doctor. Patients should be extremely clear on how much opioids they will take and for how long. The CDC has published prescribing recommendations for doctors to reduce addiction risk. Patients should familiarize themselves with these guidelines.
9. “How can I reduce the risk for side effects?”
As mentioned, common side effects from taking opioids include dizziness, drowsiness, weakness, nausea, and constipation. Patients should talk to their doctor about what other side effects to be on the lookout for and how to mitigate them.
10. “What’s the plan for bringing me off these drugs?”
Possibly the most important question, patients should be extremely clear on the plan for ending their prescription of opioid painkillers. If they decide to take painkillers, they should go into it with a clear goal for how they will come off the drug and, if any pain symptoms remain, how they will use other methods for treating those symptoms.
Patients Should Take Measures to Stay Informed
One’s doctor is their most trusted confidant in many ways and for good reason. Doctors take solemn oaths to protect their patients, and most doctors live by this code. However, patients must do right by themselves too. If considering taking opioid painkillers, patients must have a serious and detailed conversation with their doctor about it. The evidence of the harm and damage caused by opioids is too great not to.
- CDC. “Understanding the Epidemic.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2022. cdc.gov
- CDC. “Drug Overdose Deaths.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2022. cdc.gov
- CDC. “Prescription Opioids.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2013. cdc.gov
- CDC. “Guideline Recommendations and Guiding Principles.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2017. cdc.gov
- FDA. “What to Ask Your Doctor Before Taking Opioids.” Food and Drug Administration, 2023. fda.gov