For some people with severe back pain, pain medication becomes necessary. Pain medications may be administered to people with acute (short-term) pain in order to make functioning possible, or to people with chronic pain to make pain manageable while pursuing other forms of treatment to address the cause of pain.
That is the ideal situation. Unfortunately, many people suffer from what is called non-specific back pain, meaning that no cause is identified. People with acute back pain can quickly become chronic pain sufferers. Chronic back pain sufferers can quickly fall into the trap of being “treated” solely by drugs that mask the pain.
Many people trust their doctors to treat them in the best way possible, and would not question their prescriptions. However, an increasingly problematic phenomenon exists in the prescription of short-acting opioid medications for chronic pain management. Short-acting opioids are narcotic medications that provide pain relief for a brief period of time and require frequent re-dosing and, over time, higher doses in order to deliver the same pain-relieving effect.
Short-acting opioids are more habit-forming than long-acting medications and have unpleasant withdrawal symptoms, such as diarrhea, tremors and flu-like symptoms. They also act psychologically on the pain sufferer as the pain returns during withdrawal. Long-acting opioids are preferred to short-acting forms for chronic pain. Why, then, are internet forums full of people asking how to wean themselves off of percocet, a short-acting opioid comprised of oxycodone and acetaminophen?
Percocet is in the ranks of pain medications that combine a short-acting opioid with acetaminophen; others include vicodin (acetaminophen and hydrocodone) and Tylenol #3 (codeine and acetaminophen). Long-term acetaminophen use is well-known to be toxic to the liver. This fact, combined with the dangers of long-term use of short-acting opioids, makes these medications wholly unsuitable for chronic pain sufferers. Yet the prescriptions continue.
What You Can Do
If you have been prescribed percocet or another inappropriate opioid for long-term use, do not hesitate to confront your doctor. Your approach to saving yourself from chemical dependency should be two-pronged:
1) Let your doctor know that you are aware that the medication you are taking is not appropriate or safe for your pain condition. The right way to avoid withdrawal and continue managing pain will depend on how long you’ve been on your current medication. Talk with your doctor about safer alternatives, such as long-acting forms of medication. Note that these medications also come with risk of dependency; this leads to the second prong of your approach:
2) Don’t stop at safer medication. Back pain treatment should not begin and end with masking the pain. Your pain is a sign that something is wrong within your body. Failure to identify and rectify the cause of pain could lead to progressive conditions, such as spinal misalignment, degenerative disc disease and facet joint pain, to name a few. Even if an exact cause is not identified, it never hurts to experiment with available treatment methods, such as chiropractic care, physical therapy and massage therapy. Other treatments involve analyzing and correcting postural dysfunction and muscle imbalances. The list of alternative and complementary treatments for back pain is extensive. Don’t give up.
This is your pain and your treatment. Your doctor is there to help you heal. If he or she is not willing to work with you to the fullest toward that goal, it is time to look for another doctor. Empower yourself as a patient with education about your body and existing treatment possibilities. If you have been prescribed percocet or a similar medication for long-term use, there is reason to protest.