Prescription opioids are powerful, pain-reducing medications derived from the opium poppy (or a synthetic version of it).  They include oxycodone, hydrocodone and fentanyl, among others. All of us should be familiar with the names of the most common prescription opioid products which include Actiq, Duragesic, Sublimaze, Vicodin, Lortab, Lorcet, Dilaudid, Demoral, Duramorph, Roxanol, OcyContin, Percodan, Percocet and Opana. These products and others are often prescribed in the treatment of chronic non-cancer related pain despite the fact that opioid medications do not work for every patient and are not guaranteed to “fix” pain. 

Dangers of Opioids

With prescription opioids, there is always a risk of addiction. Opioids work by binding to receptors in the brain, inhibiting the ability to perceive pain. Opioids can create feelings of euphoria, physical dependence, and can potentially lead to addiction.  Repeated use of opioids changes the brain, particularly in the areas critical to judgment, decision making, learning and memory, and behavior control. Those who abuse opioids often take increasingly larger doses to achieve the euphoric effect, which can also cause breathing to slow and potentially stop.

The risk of abuse is very high when these medications are taken too often, taken by someone other than for whom they were prescribed, or taken for the sole purpose of getting high. As a result, nearly 75% of prescription drug overdoses are caused by opioid pain relievers. Approximately half of prescription opioid related deaths involve at least one other drug, such as benzodiazepines, cocaine, or heroin. Those who abuse opioid medications and become reliant on them often turn to heroin as a cheaper substitute with the same euphoric capabilities.

Even when not misused, opioids can cause dangerous side effects and may lead to abuse.  Repeated abuse can lead to addiction and death.


Don’t be afraid to ask prescription-related questions during your next doctor’s appointment. A detailed discussion of your medical history and the medications you take is an important aspect of quality healthcare. If a new medication is prescribed, find out what it does and if it has any side effects. Ask how long you will need to take it. Ask if it is an opioid and, if so, ask if there is a non-opioid alternative that you can take first.

Alternatives to Prescription Pain Medication

Opioid medications affect people in different ways, and they don’t work for ever type of pain in every patient. They also pose risks of addiction and overdose. For these reasons, be sure to discuss alternative treatment plans with your doctor when discussing prescription medications.

Some alternative treatments include:

  • Non-opioid pain medications
  • Physical, occupational, or mental health therapy
  • Counseling
  • Injections
  • Nerve stimulation
  • Acupuncture
  • Weight loss
  • Exercise
  • Heating and cooling therapy
  • Specialist pain care
  • Pain school or classes