A Patient's Perspective
Opioids for Acute Pain: Proceed with Caution
Am Fam Physician. 2018 Feb 1;97(3):203-204.
It was chilly but still a nice day for a dog walk. Having forgotten gloves, I had my hands in my coat pockets, and the leash was wrapped around my wrist. Headphones on, I wasn't paying attention to the ground. I tripped on some loose rocks and fell. The pain in my arm was immediate and intense. X-rays revealed that I had broken my shoulder, but the ER doctor assured me that it would heal on its own if I kept my arm in a sling. I was sent home with a prescription for Percocet.
Fifteen days after the fall, it turned out that I needed open reduction surgery on my proximal humerus after all. I left the hospital with a peripheral nerve block and prescriptions for more opioid pain medications. I followed this regimen for three weeks. My surgeon told me that it is better to take the medications before the pain resumes, so I set up a timed pill schedule and recorded each dose. These medications greatly reduced the pain, but I was nauseated, had no appetite, and felt drugged and disconnected. When my prescriptions ran out, I stopped taking the pain medications. I had been on opioids for the five weeks since my fall, and I wanted to feel normal again. However, I was not prepared for how horrible I would feel withdrawing from these drugs. I became emotionally unstable, suspicious, depressed, teary, and hopeless. I could not sleep without sleep aids, and I battled diarrhea and a queasy stomach for 10 days. Directly after the accident and postsurgery, I was desperate for pain relief, and the narcotics worked like magic. The adverse effects were not trivial, however, and withdrawal is something I never want to experience again. I wonder if there was another way the doctors could have managed my pain.—L.H.
In 2015, prescription opioids were directly responsible for more than 22,000 deaths.1 Nearly 2 million individuals nationwide have prescription opioid use disorder.2 Many patients are first exposed to opioids following surgery.
How could LH's difficulties with stopping opioids been avoided? Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has published guidelines for treating chronic pain with opioids,3 there are no consensus guidelines for prescribing opioids for acute peri- and postoperative pain, leading to wide variations in practice.4 Acute pain can be addressed using the World Health Organization's pain relief ladder, in which nonopioid medications (e.g., nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, acetaminophen)
This series is coordinated by Caroline Wellbery, MD, Associate Deputy Editor, with assistance from Amy Crawford-Faucher, MD; Jo Marie Reilly, MD; and Sanaz Majd, MD.
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