Sometimes, strong medications called opioids are needed to control pain. Opioid pain relievers are generally safe when taken for a short time as prescribed by your doctor, but they can become addictive, especially if they are misused. Regular use can lead to dependence. Never take opioids in greater amounts or more often than prescribed.
Using opioids can also increase risk for falls, dizziness, and other ailments in older adults.
Becoming addicted to prescription pain medicine can happen to anyone, including older adults. Sometimes, these treatments are the only ones available that can help. But, sometimes other treatments can and should be tried first or can be used intermittently or simultaneously. So, ask your doctor if there is another medicine or a non-medicine alternative you can try. Tell your doctor if you or a family member has a history of alcohol or drug abuse.
For more information about opioid use, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website.
Opioid addiction can be treated. If you or someone close to you needs help for a substance use disorder, talk with your doctor, or contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration at 1-800-662-4357 (toll-free).
Medicines to Treat Pain
Your doctor may prescribe one or more of the following pain medications. Talk with your doctor about their safety and the right dose to take.
- Acetaminophen may help all types of pain, especially mild to moderate pain. Acetaminophen is found in over-the-counter and prescription medicines. People who have more than three drinks per day or who have liver disease should not take acetaminophen.
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) include aspirin, naproxen, and ibuprofen. Long-term use of some NSAIDs can cause side effects, like internal bleeding or kidney problems, which make them unsafe for many older adults. You may not be able to take ibuprofen if you have high blood pressure.
- Narcotics (also called opioids) are used for moderate to severe pain and require a doctor’s prescription. They may be habit-forming. They can also be dangerous when taken with alcohol or certain other drugs. Examples of narcotics are codeine, morphine, and oxycodone.
- Other medications are sometimes used to treat pain. These include antidepressants, anticonvulsive medicines, local painkillers like nerve blocks or patches, and ointments and creams.
As people age, they are at risk for developing more side effects from medications. It’s important to take exactly the amount of pain medicine your doctor prescribes. Don’t chew or crush your pills if they are supposed to be swallowed whole. Talk with your doctor or pharmacist if you’re having trouble swallowing your pills.
Mixing any pain medication with alcohol or other drugs can be dangerous. Make sure your doctor knows all the medicines you take, including over-the-counter drugs and dietary supplements, as well as the amount of alcohol you drink.
Remember: If you think the medicine is not working, don’t change it on your own. Talk to your doctor or nurse.
What Other Treatments Help with Pain?
In addition to drugs, there are a variety of complementary and alternative approaches that may provide relief. Talk to your doctor about these treatments. It may take both medicine and other treatments to feel better.
- Acupuncture uses hair-thin needles to stimulate specific points on the body to relieve pain.
- Biofeedback helps you learn to control your heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, and other body functions. This may help reduce your pain and stress level.
- Cognitive behavioral therapy is a form of short-term counseling that may help reduce your reaction to pain.
- Distraction can help you cope with acute pain, taking your mind off your discomfort.
- Electrical nerve stimulation uses electrical impulses to relieve pain.
- Guided imagery uses directed thoughts to create mental pictures that may help you relax, manage anxiety, sleep better, and have less pain.
- Hypnosis uses focused attention to help manage pain.
- Massage therapy can release tension in tight muscles.
- Mind-body stress reduction combines mindfulness meditation, body awareness, and yoga to increase relaxation and reduce pain.
- Physical therapy uses a variety of techniques to help manage everyday activities with less pain and teaches you ways to improve flexibility and strength.
There are things you can do yourself that might help you feel better. Try to:
- Keep a healthy weight. Putting on extra pounds can slow healing and make some pain worse. A healthy weight might help with pain in the knees, back, hips, or feet.
- Be physically active. Pain might make you inactive, which can lead to more pain and loss of function. Activity can help.
- Get enough sleep. It can reduce pain sensitivity, help healing, and improve your mood.
- Avoid tobacco, caffeine, and alcohol. They can get in the way of treatment and increase pain.
- Join a pain support group. Sometimes, it can help to talk to other people about how they deal with pain. You can share your thoughts while learning from others.