Concerns about pain medicines
Pain is almost always manageable. But some people may not want to take pain medicines because they are scared of side effects, addiction or losing control. Some people also hold certain beliefs about pain medicines that make them worry about taking these drugs.
Some pain medicines can cause side effects. The most common side effects are drowsiness, constipation, nausea, vomiting and dry mouth. Some of these side effects may go away after you take the drugs for a period of time. Other side effects might not go away. The healthcare team can help with managing side effects by changing the medicine or dose or by treating the side effect.
Find out more about managing side effects.
Many people fear that taking pain medicines can lead to addiction. Taking pain medicine regularly is very different from addiction. A key part of addiction is a mental dependence on the drug. This happens when the need to take a drug becomes a craving or an impulse that is more than just physical. Addiction to pain drugs while they are being used to treat cancer pain is not common.
The body can get used to some drugs if they are taken for a long period of time. This is called physical dependence and it is a normal physical response. When it’s time to stop taking pain medicines such as opioids the healthcare team will slowly lower the dose so that the body has time to adjust.
Some people may worry about losing control, getting a mental high or not being aware of what’s going on if taking pain medicines. When prescribed painkillers are taken properly, they don’t cause a mental high or loss of control.
Pain medicines, opioids in particular, can make you feel sleepy or cause changes in mental alertness when they are first taken or when the dose is increased. This side effect is not part of addiction or psychological dependence, and it usually goes away within a few days. Drowsiness can also be caused by the body needing to catch up on rest now that the pain is under control.
Pain medicines affect everyone differently. Talk to the healthcare team if pain medicine is still causing drowsiness or changes in mental alertness after taking it for 3 days. The healthcare team will make sure that the dose of the pain medicine is just enough to keep the pain under control. Sometimes adjusting the dose or changing the type of painkiller can help lessen drowsiness or changes in mental awareness.
Not knowing if treatment is working
Some people believe that fighting cancer involves feeling pain. They may worry that when taking pain medicines they will not know if the cancer is responding to treatment or if it is progressing. It is important to know that pain isn’t a necessary part of having cancer. The healthcare team will be able to tell in other ways if the treatment is working. Taking pain medicines will not affect treatment.
When pain is controlled, it is easier to cope with treatment, and quality of life will also be better. Pain is easier to control if it is treated quickly. The best way to control pain is to prevent it or keep it from getting worse. Long-term pain can permanently affect the body and the brain so that the body becomes more sensitive to pain.
Believing that pain medicines will not work when needed
Sometimes the body will get used to a drug so that a higher dose is needed for it to work. This is known as drug tolerance. When someone develops a tolerance to a pain medicine, they may worry that it will not work when they really need it. Drug tolerance usually doesn’t happen with medicines used to treat cancer pain. If it does, the healthcare team can adjust the dose slightly or prescribe a different type of medicine.
Believing that pain medicines will shorten life
Some people think that using an opioid like morphine will shorten their life. This is not true. Using opioids regularly to control pain doesn’t damage internal organs or cause permanent side effects. In many cases, these stronger drugs are needed to control pain and they can be used for a long time. In fact, there is some evidence that people live longer when their pain is better controlled.
I’m extremely grateful to the Canadian Cancer Society for funding my research with an Innovation Grant.
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