Ask a Pharmacist

Opioids and Alternative Options

Opioids and alternatives image

by Benjamin Liang
PharmD Candidate Class of 2019, University of Arizona

Opioids and Their Risks

Opioids are a class of medication used to manage short-term and long-term pain. This medication class is well known to healthcare providers, but also to anyone keeping up with local and national news. The current opioid crisis affects thousands of people every year. When taken inappropriately, opioids can result in inadequate pain relief, drug tolerance, addiction, overdose, and even death. A majority of opioid overdoses that result in death are accidental or unintentional.4 Due to the side effects and risks associated with opioids, healthcare providers are being urged to change opioid prescribing habits to meet new opioid regulations and to keep patients safe.

Changing Opioid Regulations

Prescribers are currently facing new opioid regulations at the state and federal levels. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) have implemented a maximum daily limit for opioids and some states are also cracking down by regulating the amount of days allowed on initial prescriptions. Arizona restricts initial opioid prescriptions to 5 days and sets an opioid dose limit per day.1 New laws and regulations are changing prescribing habits in hopes of reducing the thousands of opioid related overdoses every year. If you are starting or currently taking opioids, ask your healthcare providers if there are any new rules and regulations specific to your state.

Alternatives to Opioids

There are many alternative medications that can be used to manage acute and chronic pain. Medication selection is based on identifying the cause of the pain. A sprained ankle might be treated with a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) to reduce swelling and inflammation, but the same NSAID would not have benefit for pain caused by nerve damage.

Potentially useful medications for pain include:

Nociceptive pain

  • Non-opioid analgesic agents (aspirin, acetaminophen, NSAIDs)
  • Tramadol
  • Topical analgesic agents
  • Muscle Relaxants

Neuropathic pain

  • Gabapentinoids
  • Antidepressants (venlafaxine, duloxetine, amitriptyline)
  • Topical analgesic agents

Opioid Non-responsive cancer pain

  • Alpha 2 adrenergic agonists

The listed medications and classes are a general list not intended to help in your personal medication selection. The ideal approach to pain management identifies the underlying cause of the pain and selects the appropriate treatment.4  Please consult your healthcare providers for pain identification and medication selection.

Questions for Healthcare Providers

All of the drugs and drug classes listed above can help in pain management depending on the underlying issue. Classification of the cause and level of pain is something that should be handled by healthcare providers. Asking for your pain classification will assist doctors and pharmacists in identifying the correct pain management therapy.

There are some steps you should take before making changes or starting a new medication. When starting or changing medications, please consult your doctor and pharmacist regarding what to expect. Changes should not be made without consulting a healthcare provider because of potential medication interactions and repercussions of abruptly starting or stopping medications. Your healthcare provider should review your medication dose, route, and time to take your medication. The potential side effects and expected outcomes should also be reviewed.3

If you have any concerns with taking opioid medications, talk to your doctor and pharmacist to help identify if opioids or alternative medications are appropriate.

References
1. Ducey, O. o. (2018). ArizonaOpioid Epidemic Act. azgovernor.gov
2. Rosenquist, E. W. (2017). Overview of the treatment of chronic non-cancer pain. UpToDate
3. Rosenquist, E. W. (2018). Evaluation of chronic pain in adults. UpToDate
4. SAMHSA. (2015). Behavioral Health Trends. Rockville, MD: RTI International


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