Why Opioids Are Not Always the Right Option for People Who Are Suffering from Chronic Pain

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Contributor: Staff at Sierra Tucson

There are some aches and pains that come and go on their own, or you may need the support of an over-the-counter painkiller to get rid of them. But sometimes, an injury or health condition can cause pain that is so severe or persistent (or both) that only a medical professional can help.

When pain becomes chronic, it can be difficult to manage on a daily basis. Medical professionals often prescribe medications such as opioids to alleviate the discomfort, but this isn’t always the best long-term solution for those who are at greater risk of developing an addiction.

Fortunately, there are other ways to manage chronic pain that don’t involve prescribing opioids.

When There is Chronic Pain

Pain is considered chronic when it lasts for more than several months or beyond the point a medical condition is expected to heal. It may stem from any number of conditions, such as [1]:

  • Cancer
  • Arthritis
  • Migraines
  • Surgery
  • Back or neck pain
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Nerve pain
  • Endometriosis

Experts say that this kind of pain is much more common than many might realize, with about 20% of U.S. adults suffering from chronic pain and 8% struggling with pain that keeps them from doing at least one important thing in their life [2].

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For many adults, living in constant pain can make it nearly impossible to function, and that includes making it through work every day. In the U.S., this adds up to an estimated $560 billion annually in lost productivity, medical costs and social service programs [3].

The inability to work or simply enjoy time with loved ones can take a serious toll on a person’s emotional well-being. Without any sort of relief, the constant struggle with chronic pain can make someone feel anxious and depressed, and that can amplify the physical pain they are feeling, creating a dangerous cycle of physical and emotional distress.

So, how do you manage such a debilitating condition?

The Role of Opioids in Chronic Pain

Medications such as prescription opioids often play a key role in pain management, whether after surgery or to manage a chronic medical condition. In fact, about 10% of U.S. adults used a prescription pain medication in the past 30 days, with about 5% using a prescription opioid such as oxycodone or hydrocodone [4].

While taking prescription opioids can be an effective way to manage severe, persistent pain, especially when someone is working closely with their healthcare provider, this pain management technique isn’t without risk for certain people.

Nearly 30% of those who are prescribed opioids to manage chronic pain misuse them [5]. That means that they take more than the prescribed amount, take the medication for longer than their doctor recommends or take the medication for nonmedical purposes.

There are many factors that can influence someone’s risk for opioid abuse, including how long they’ve been suffering from chronic pain and whether they have also developed a mental health condition such as depression.

And when someone abuses prescription opioids, their chances of developing an addiction increase. About 12% of people who take a prescription opioid to manage chronic pain develop an addiction to that medication [5].

For many people, this has come at a great cost. In the past decade, overdose deaths involving prescription opioids have more than quadrupled, topping out at nearly 247,000 [6].

Opioid Alternatives for Chronic Pain

Girl fighting chronic pain with Horse Although some people can take prescription opioids to manage chronic pain, others may benefit from a pain management plan that does not involve medication.

When someone is at risk for or is already struggling with an addiction, they can work with professionals who use evidence-based, non-opioid approaches to pain management to help them manage their discomfort.

This will likely combine different therapies and approaches depending on a person’s personal and medical history, such as [1]:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) – By working with a therapist one-on-one or in group sessions, a person can explore the role pain has had in their life and change any harmful thought patterns.
  • Biofeedback – During biofeedback sessions, a person wears a device that receives certain information about their body, such as their heart rate and muscle contractions. This allows the healthcare provider to work with that person to help them learn to relax certain muscles and reduce their pain.
  • Yoga – Research suggests that yoga can relieve low back and neck pain, as well as pain associated with tension headaches and osteoarthritis.
  • Meditation – This approach can help a person learn mindfulness, reduce their stress and feel more physically relaxed.

Although managing pain is a personal journey, it shouldn’t be taken alone. If you are suffering from chronic pain, there are kind, compassionate medical professionals who can help you find a pain management plan that is right for you.


[1] National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. (2018, September). Chronic pain: In Depth. Retrieved January 4, 2022, https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/chronic-pain-in-depth.

[2] National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. (2018, September 14). Defining the prevalence of chronic pain in the united states. Retrieved January 5, 2022, https://www.nccih.nih.gov/research/research-results/defining-the-prevalence-of-chronic-pain-in-the-united-states.

[3] Zajacova, A., Grol-Prokopczyk, H., & Zimmer, Z. (2021). Pain trends among American adults, 2002–2018: Patterns, disparities, and correlates. Demography. 58 (2): 711–738. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1215/00703370-8977691.

[4] Hales, C., Martin, C., & Gu, Q. (2020, June). Prevalence of prescription pain medication use among adults: united states, 2015–2018. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/products/databriefs/db369.htm.

[5] National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2021, March 11). Opioid overdose crisis. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/drug-topics/opioids/opioid-overdose-crisis.

[6] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, March 17). Overview. Retrieved January 5, 2022, https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/deaths/prescription/overview.html.

[7] Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2011). Managing chronic pain in adults with or in recovery from substance use disorders.
Retrieved from https://store.samhsa.gov/sites/default/files/d7/priv/sma13-4671.pdf.

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The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of addictions. These are not necessarily the views of Addiction Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

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Published on January 17, 2022
Reviewed by Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on January 17, 2022
Published on AddictionHope.com

About Baxter Ekern

Baxter Ekern is the Vice President of Ekern Enterprises, Inc. He contributed and helped write a major portion of Addiction Hope and is responsible for the operations of the website.