Different types of pain medication, side effects and concerns about addiction.

Several types of medicines can be used to treat pain. Mild pain can often be controlled with over-the-counter medication such as Advil or Tylenol. But if your pain is more severe, your doctor might recommend a prescription opioid such as morphine or hydromorphone, or other medications.

Find a list of pain medications, including a range of pills, topical treatments and injections.

Discuss with your doctor, nurse practitioner or pharmacist about your options and possible side effects.

If you have any chronic medical conditions such as high blood pressure, heart failure, kidney disease, liver disease or stomach problems, make sure your health care provider is aware so they can recommend the best medication for you.

Some conditions, like fibromyalgia, do not respond well to drugs. Often, medications work best in combination with psychological and physical therapies.

Don't wait for the pain to get bad

The most common mistake people make when taking painkillers is not taking them soon enough. Taking medication is not a sign of weakness or failure. By controlling your pain early on, you can prevent the cycle of stress and increased pain.

Make the most of your pain medicines:

  • If you have regular medication, take them on time (by the clock). If your medication is for “breakthrough pain” or you have been told to take it as needed, don’t wait until you cannot possibly bear it any longer before taking your medication.
  • Be prepared for breakthrough pain. You may find that taking your medicine works most of the time but that your pain flares up during extra activity or even for no clear reason. These flare-ups are called breakthrough pain. Your doctor can give you a prescription for fast-acting medicines that you can take for breakthrough pain or you can learn other ways to deal with it (for example with deep breathing or stretching).
  • If you have more than one doctor, pick one doctor to be in charge of all your pain medications. If more than one doctor prescribes pain medication, make sure they talk to each other.

Can I get addicted to pain medication?

Many people often confuse the term “addiction.” People who are addicted abuse or misuse the drug for reasons other than pain relief. This is fairly uncommon.

You may find that after taking opioids (for example, morphine and hydromorphone) for a while you may need more of the drug to achieve the same effect in reducing your pain. This is called tolerance – not the same as addiction.

Over an extended period of time, your body can develop physical dependence. Your body becomes used to the medication so that if you abruptly stop taking it, you may get withdrawal symptoms such as nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, irritability or anxiety.

When should I stop taking pain medication?

Never change or stop taking any opioid medicine without first checking with your doctor. If a pain medication isn't working as well as it should, your doctor may switch you to a different dose or try another drug.

When you're ready to stop taking opioids, your doctor may help wean you off them slowly to give your body time to adjust. Otherwise, you may have withdrawal symptoms.

Opioids and constipation

Opioids can slow down movement of your digestive system and cause constipation.

Tips to combat constipation

  • Increase your dietary fibre intake by eating more fruits (prunes) and vegetables.
  • Talk to your health care provider about whether it is appropriate for you to use a stimulant laxative (for example, sennosides or bisacodyl) or other medications such as Restoralax or Miralax, lactulose or magnesium-containing medications.
  • Docusate is not as effective for opioid-induced constipation.
  • Use Metamucil or other over-the-counter fibre supplements with caution. They may not help and may lead to blockage in your intestines if you're on opioids.

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