Some opioid addicts turn to illegal drugs because they’re cheaper and easier to get than prescription medication.  That includes the heroin and fentanyl both opioids shown here after being seized by Rochester, N.Y., policeAccording to theNational Institute on Drug Abuse, about half of all young people abused prescription opioids before they injected heroin for the first time.

Opioids can be an effective form of treatment, but they also can turn a life upside down. According to the CDC, as many as one in four patients who take prescription opioids in a primary care setting struggle with addiction. Use of these prescription pain medications also can lead to abuse of illegal drugs.

There are lots of myths that mask addiction and associated issues.  For instance, some patients believe they can’t become addicted to narcotics because it was prescribed legally. But the body does not know or care how the opioids were introduced. It just knows that it is used to having them onboard.  

So, there’s a huge need for education and a coordinated response to our opioid crisis.  Here are six steps patients should take if they’re suffering from chronic pain:

  • Ask their doctors about alternative treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy, exercise, acupuncture, physical therapy and other medications, including acetaminophen and ibuprofen.
  • Tell your physician whether you’ve had difficulties with opioids (or other pain medications or alcohol) in the past so that alternative therapies can be pursued.
  • Always take the medications as directed by your doctor and ask about other drugs, including alcohol, to avoid while on the prescription.
  • Take the lowest dose that covers your pain.  Understand that being pain free is likely impossible. Accept the situation as much as possible and use the minimum amount of narcotic possible.
  • Be careful to keep the drugs where others can’t access them. If there are any pills left over after you no longer need them, look for drug drop-off programs to ensure they aren’t stolen or abused.
  • Expect regular follow-ups with your doctor, who will want to monitor your pain level and side effects and track any problems

Education is key for families and care-givers, too.  Addiction affects the whole family…for generations to come.

Kari Williamson, BS, RN, LNCC, CCM ( is the president of MKC Medical Management and works with lawyers, insurance examiners and others in the medical-legal-insurance space to better manage and understand claim issues.

NOTE:  This is the fourth in a series of posts about our opioid epidemic. Here’s a post about what employers can do, another focused on what insurers can do and a third addressed to physicians.