Prescription opioids: What you need to know

Providence Health Plan is committed to keeping you safe and healthy. Even if you’ve never taken opioid pain medications, the following information may help you better understand them. And, if you ever need this type of medication, you’ll also find tips on working with your doctor to help ensure safe use.

Prescription opioids are a class of drugs used to reduce moderate to severe pain. Common types of prescription opioids are oxycodone, hydrocodone/acetaminophen and morphine. While opioids can be helpful in relieving certain types of pain, they also come with serious risk and potential for complications. Taking opioid medications – especially for longer periods of time – even as directed may:

  • Cause side effects like stomach upset, constipation, confusion, dizziness, depression, drowsiness and an increase in pain sensitivity
  • Lead to tolerance, which means you might need to take more of a medication for the same pain relief
  • Create physical dependence where you may suffer withdrawal symptoms (such as anxiety, nausea and vomiting) when the medication is stopped
  • Lead to serious risk of addiction and overdose. An opioid overdose, often marked by slowed breathing, can cause sudden death. This risk may be increased if opioids are taken with alcohol and other medications (such as muscle relaxants and medications for anxiety and sleep) 

Given the risks associated with opioids and the fact that newer studies show that for some pain conditions (e.g., lower back pain, certain nerve pain, muscle pains, certain headaches, etc.) opioids don’t work as well, other non-opioid therapy should be considered first. Examples of non-opioid therapy include:  

  • Heat and/or ice
  • Pain relievers like ibuprofen, naproxen or acetaminophen
  • Medications that may help with nerve type pain (such as gabapentin or duloxetine)
  • Massage, acupuncture, physical therapy and exercise

Opioid therapy should be started only if the expected benefits are anticipated to outweigh risks. It is important that you have a discussion with your provider before starting these medications.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as well as other national health organizations recommend that opioids prescribed for acute pain should be limited to three days or fewer, and that more than a 7-day supply should rarely be needed. They recommend that patients follow-up with their provider if their pain is not resolving as quickly as expected or lasts beyond seven days. In order to promote safe and appropriate use of opioid medications, Providence Health Plan initiated a 7-day supply limit for opioids for acute pain effective Jan. 1, 2019. Members who do not have a recent claims history for opioids are limited to a maximum of a 7-day supply on their initial opioid prescription fill. 

If your provider decides that opioids are necessary for you, here are a few ways to help avoid misuse:

  • As with all medications, only take the medications as directed
  • Talk with your provider if you have concerns about side effects, including dependence
  • Do not drink alcohol while taking opioids
  • Check with your provider or pharmacist to make sure it’s okay to take opioids with other medications you are taking
  • Store all medicines in a secure place that’s out of the reach of children and others
  • Never share pain relievers with other people
  • Follow up regularly with your doctor about your care
  • Properly dispose of any unused medications