The Risks of Using Opiates for Pain. What Are the Alternatives?

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Advancements in medicine have led to life-saving medications that prolong life and save people from illnesses that would otherwise be insurmountable. But not all medicines are universally beneficial.

Opioid painkillers (prescription pain relievers derived from the opium poppy), do offer pain relief, but often at a cost. What are the risks of painkillers? And where else might patients turn for pain relief?

The Risks of Opioid Painkillers

While opiate painkillers were promoted by pharma companies as “nonaddictive” as recently as the early-2000s, there is absolutely no doubt that these drugs are addictive. Here’s a snapshot of what we know:

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, somewhere between 21 to 29 percent of people who have a prescription for painkillers wind up abusing them.

Prescription Painkiller
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About four to six percent of people who misuse opiate painkillers end up using heroin.

The vast majority of heroin addicts in the United States (eighty percent) began their drug use with pharmaceutical painkillers, not heroin.

It is estimated that about two million Americans are addicted to prescription opiates (even though they are supposed to help people, not turn them into addicts). The total economic cost of prescription opioid addiction is estimated at $78.5 billion per year.

Prescription painkiller addiction affects more than just those who are addicted. Families are broken, babies are born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, car accident and crime statistics jump, public health services are weighed down, etc.

Given the considerable risk in prescription opioids, millions of Americans who struggle with some degree of pain wonder where to turn for relief. Studies show that about 50 million Americans struggle with chronic pain, and the vast majority of them want to find a way to address pain without increasing their risk for addiction.

What can pain patients do for their pain that does not involve taking addictive, potentially lethal drugs? Is there an alternative option? Does it have to be a choice between daily pain or addiction risk?

Alternative Options to Addictive Pain Relievers

Whenever considering a treatment, one should always speak with their doctor and get medical advice first. But with that being said, there are some legitimate alternatives to pain relief explored in medical publications. Here are a few:

  • Cold and Heat. Long used as a pain remedy, cold packs or hot packs can often relieve pain, especially muscle or joint pain.
  • Exercise. Walking, swimming, cycling, and other moderate, low-impact cardiovascular activities can often reduce pain that stems from inactivity or a sedentary lifestyle.
  • Physical Therapy. Physical therapy is a means of treating pain conditions by improving and preserving strength and mobility. Occupational therapy is also beneficial, an approach that helps patients learn how to perform daily activities without triggering physical pain.
  • Mind-body techniques. Physical pain often has a mental component, which is why mind-body techniques can help reduce pain. Meditation and breathing exercises can help calm the body down, relaxing otherwise stressed and pained muscles.
  • Yoga and Tai Chi. Engaging in exercises that combine breath control, meditation, and gentle movements help stretch and strengthen muscles. Such activities can help reduce pain from headaches, old injuries, arthritis, back pain, etc.
  • Music Therapy. Some studies have shown that music can relieve pain during and after surgery and childbirth. Such an approach may help in treating other forms of acute pain.
Massage Therapy
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  • Massage Therapy. Massages work tension and knots out of muscles and joints, improving circulation, nerve communication pathways, and hormones throughout the body. And this has the potential for reducing pain in these areas.
  • Chiropractic Care. Pain often begins in the spine and resonates from there. Something as simple as a misalignment within the spine can cause a considerable amount of pain. Chiropractic care can help relieve pain by realigning the spine properly.
  • Acupuncture. While there is still much to learn about acupuncture, some evidence indicates that this practice can help alleviate back pain, neck pain, osteoarthritis/knee pain, and headaches.
  • Vitamins and Supplements. There are many herbal remedies and dietary supplements that can help relieve pain, especially inflammation-based pain. Some options include turmeric, capsaicin, valerian root, and ginger.

What to Do if Addiction Occurs

Though opioid painkillers were considered the gold standard in pain relief up into and through the early-2000s, the medical community now recognizes the severe risk associated with such drugs. Quoting Liza Torborg, writing for the Mayo Clinic, “Traditionally, the first step in treating chronic pain has been medication, including strong painkillers such as opioids. But these drugs can be problematic. Opioids are powerful drugs, but they can also have serious side effects and pose a significant risk for addiction when used long term. The problems associated with using opioids for pain relief make it crucial that other strategies be considered when managing chronic pain.”

  “Traditionally, the first step in treating chronic pain has been medication, including strong painkillers such as opioids. But these drugs can be problematic.”  

For those who have already begun taking prescription opioids for pain symptoms and who have become addicted to such substances as a result, getting off of the drugs has to be the priority. Once addiction has been appropriately addressed, the next step will be to focus on the pain condition and find an alternative pain treatment approach.

Narconon offers a unique and practical approach to addiction treatment which is quite unlike any other in the world. Narconon helps people overcome their addiction and regain control over their lives. With Narconon's help, recovering addicts can finally sit in the driver’s seat of their lives again, able to address life and tackle any problems life might throw at them (such as physical pain), without turning to addictive substances.

If you know someone struggling with addiction please contact Narconon today.




After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.