At some point, most of us have been prescribed an opioid-based pain medication such as hydrocodone (Vicodin) or oxycodone (OxyContin, Percocet). Doctors and dentists often prescribe these painkillers after major surgery or dental work, or a bad fall or other accident.

With all the talk about the opioid crisis, should we view these medications with newfound fear and suspicion?

The short answer is "no"—as long as you use them responsibly, as your doctor directs.

Prescription pain medications are nonetheless playing a big role in the current epidemic of drug addiction, overdoses, and deaths. Pennsylvania hospitals are treating more and more patients who have overdosed on drugs, both prescription pain medications and illegal street drugs.

If you or a loved one is prescribed pain medications, talk to your doctor. Making a plan up front, before you get your prescription filled, puts you in the very best position to get safe, effective pain relief.

1)   Know your risk. If you are over 65, have sleep apnea or a mental health condition, or are pregnant, you have more of a risk of addiction. As you might expect, your risk is also greater if you have struggled with substance abuse in the past.

2)   Make sure you understand your prescription inside and out. Why is your doctor prescribing this medication? About how long will you likely need to take it? Exactly how much do you take, and how often? What are the side effects?

Be sure to find out what medications—such as muscle relaxants and some sleeping pills—you must avoid while taking your prescription. If you drink alcohol, make sure you ask about that. Your doctor will likely want you to cut back or stop.

In terms of making sure you steer clear of addiction, what signs and symptoms should you watch for? Never take opioids in greater amounts, or more often, than prescribed.

3)   Explore alternatives. Non-opioid pain relievers, physical therapy and exercise, and some kinds of behavioral therapy can work as well as pain medications without carrying the risk of addiction. Talk to your doctor about other ways to relieve your pain.

This discussion is especially important if your doctor thinks your pain will be chronic or will last for a long time. One study of outpatients at a large U.S. health system found that as many as one in four who received long-term opioid therapy for non-cancer pain struggled with opioid dependence.

4)   Safely get rid of unused medications. Fewer opportunities for others to misuse leftover painkillers means fewer opportunities for addiction.

Find the nearest drug take-back box in Pennsylvania. Or flush unused medications down the toilet following these guidelines from the Food and Drug Administration.

This information and more is available on a one-page Prescription Opioid fact sheet put together by the American Hospital Association and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Information about how Pennsylvania hospitals are working to curb the opioid crisis is available from The Hospital and Healthsystem Association of Pennsylvania.

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