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Opioids and Older Patients

It has been well documented that there is an ongoing opioid crisis in this country. We read and watch news programs outlining the dangers, addictive nature, and negative impact opioids have inflicted on users.  These reports tend to highlight younger people who because of their addiction to opioids have moved to other drugs like heroin. What is sometimes left out, is the impact opioids have on older patients. This article will address how opioids affect the older population and what may be done to combat the problem.


Why opioids are prescribed

Pain is one of the most prevalent health conditions there is. Most people experience pain in one form or another at various times. This number goes up substantially as people age. Opioids are prescribed because they alleviate pain symptoms much more effectively than aspirin or other over the counter remedies.  Opioids are used to treat moderate to severe pain and are commonly used after procedures such as a knee or hip replacement.  Most people have no intention of abusing these drugs and that is precisely why they are so dangerous.


Becoming addicted

Simply put, people become addicted because while taking opioids such as OxyContin, Norco, etc. the brain releases a chemical that makes you feel good. This doesn’t last, and the brain and body covets more of that chemical. This eventually wreaks havoc with the brain’s normal distribution of the chemical creating a dependency.  At this point, people only feel normal when they are taking the opioids, and experience many unpleasant symptoms when they are not taking the opioids.


Opioids in the older population

As somebody ages, they are more likely to have pain, illness, or a surgery that may necessitate the need for an opioid prescription.  Side effects of these drugs can impact older patients in many ways including, but not limited to:

  • Addiction
  • Increase likelihood of falls
  • Dementia and cognitive impairments
  • Depression
  • Irregular breathing

Addiction may also be more difficult to diagnosis and treat in older patients. Opioids do not discriminate when it comes to age. Anyone who takes them has the potential to become dependent on them. They are highly addictive and habit forming.


What to do to avoid taking pain killers that contain opioids

Knowledge is power. Make sure that you know what you or your loved one is taking to alleviate pain symptoms. Opioids are used to treat moderate to severe pain, so when the condition that they are taking opioids for is improving, they should also taper off the use of opioids and take alternative medications such as Acetaminophen or Ibuprofen to treat mild to moderate pain.  There are also some non-pharmalogic interventions that can be used to lessen pain. Some of these interventions are:

  • Physical Therapy
  • Pain management care under trained physicians who understand the alternatives
  • Yoga
  • Acupuncture
  • Heat and Cold applications

It is recommended that alternatives to opioid pain killers are used to avoid any side effects or habit forming tendencies whenever possible.


Take Control

As more and more information comes out about opioid use, abuse, and addiction, it is clear that we should only use opioids when necessary.   There may be times when opioids are needed, and if used carefully and under the supervision of a responsible physician or nursing facility can be beneficial. Focus on things that may help to reduce pain safely. Ask questions of your health care providers, and understand the risks and benefits of medications you are prescribed.