Is it possible to manage pain without medications?
Many pain medications can come with really unpleasant side effects. Opioid medications (such as vicodin, percocet, oxycontin) can cause nausea, severe constipation, increases risks for central sleep apnea, and other unpleasant risks and side effects. Other pain medications like gabapentin can cause weight gain. Pain medications can leave people feeling “out of it” and cause problems with driving, working, engaging with family. Some people choose to avoid using any pain medications at all, but that can come with some downsides.
Let's take a look at how medications can help and how medications can hinder pain management.
How Can Medications Help?
Using pain medications responsibly can help to increase your overall functioning and quality of life. If pain medications are helping to reduce your physical pain, and then you use that time of pain-reduction to move more (within reason), to get out of the house and be more social with friends and family. If pain medications reduce your pain, and you use that time to improve your quality of life by engaging in an activity, then pain medication can be very beneficial.
How Can Medications Hinder?
Medications can work too well. For example, if John has a shoulder injury, and the medications he is using to control his pain work extremely well. Without medication, John’s shoulder pain is a 7/10 and with medication John’s shoulder pain is 0/10. Because he feels so good, he works all day re-roofing his house. Unbeknownst to him, his shoulder injury is getting worse and worse. He may be doing more damage without realizing it. Pain helps keep us aware of our limits, and with 0 pain comes 0 reminders of the limits of our physical body. It can be too easy to re-injure yourself, create a new injury, and generally over-do activities if you have too much pain medication.
Another way in which medications can work too well is when medications help treat emotional pain. After a wisdom tooth removal, Carla was prescribed a two week’s prescription for vicodin. Carla’s mother was just diagnosed with cancer, her hours at her job just got cut back, and she needs that money to pay for tuition, which is due next month. She rushes to get this dental work done before she loses her dental coverage through her job. Carla is stressed out, big time. Luckily, the procedure goes well enough. Carla takes the vicodin, exactly as prescribed. She notices she feels good with this medication. She can fall asleep easier. She cares a lot less about money. She’s been crying less, too, after she talks with her mom on the phone. Is vicodin helping her pain? Yes. Is vicodin helping to treat more than her pain? Yes, absolutely.
Carla, even without a history of addiction problems, is now at a much higher risk of addiction to pain medications. What will happen when the medicine runs out? She needs to develop some other coping skills, and quick.