A Guide to Opioid Safety

There has been a pushback in recent years against the prescribing of opioids, as the opioid epidemic continues to rise in the U.S.  

While awareness about the risks of opioids is important, it is also crucial for patients to know that there are safe ways to take, store and dispose of the medications.

By simply learning a few guidelines before you start a prescription, you set yourself up for a successful recovery process.

Prescription opioids work by decreasing your brain’s receptiveness to pain, while also creating endorphins to induce a euphoric effect. As a result, they can be highly addictive.

Despite their addictive-nature, opioids remain as one of the most effective pain-relievers if properly prescribed and administered.

Linda Franklin, R.N., O.N.C., ambulatory joint care coordinator with Carilion Clinic’s Institute for Orthopaedics and Neuroscience, recommends a “less is more” approach, which includes:

  • Starting slow and only taking them as needed for pain above a three on the pain scale. Begin with one pill at the prescribed intervals recommended by your physician.
  • Other pain medications (such as Tylenol, Tramadol) or anti-inflammatories (like meloxicam) may be prescribed in addition. Consider taking them with or in place of the opioid as your pain level dictates. Other modalities like ice therapy can add to the effectiveness of these medications.
  • If you are able to sleep through the night, do not set the alarm to take a dose during the night. If you are sleeping there is no need.
  • The dosage and need to take opioids should decrease throughout the recovery process. If not, contact your provider.
  • Once pain is minimal, try opting for medication like Tylenol in place of the opioid

“Patients often lose sight of the fact that injuries and surgeries are painful. Medications are there to help with the pain but cannot and will not take away all the pain; there will be pain - it is part of the healing process,” said Franklin. “Always keep in mind that opioids are prescribed short term for acute pain such as post-operative recovery pain. Long-term use will require a team approach with providers skilled in pain management.”

“Initially, there may be times when a patient returns home post-surgery when there is a need to take one to two narcotic pills,” Franklin added. “Physical therapy sessions are a good example, but this should not be the routine during the recovery period.”

Additional opioid safety tips can also keep you safe during periods of medication and prevent those around you from unnecessary opioid exposure. These tips include:

  • Inform your doctor about other drugs you take to avoid mixing opioids with other substances
  • Be aware of the signs of overmedication, which include an inability to stay awake, wake up, speak or walk properly
  • Keep your prescriptions where other people do not have access to them
  • Look into takeback programs and safe drug disposal boxes at your hospital or law enforcement agency. These are excellent, safe ways to dispose of medications.
  • Always eat a snack with any pain medication

Be sure to talk with your physician about what safe drug disposal and drop-off opportunities there are in your community.