Three myths about taking prescription painkillers

Today we put to bed three of the most persistent myths about painkillers.

painkillers

Whether you’re taking prescription pain medicine for a short period or to ease long-term pain, you’ve likely heard about the good and bad side of painkillers. Sometimes, it can be difficult to separate fact from fiction. Learning how painkillers work in your body is important to help you make the right choice about when and how much to take.

Today we put to bed three of the most persistent myths about painkillers.

Myth 1: It’s easy to become addicted to prescription pain medicine
The answer to this depends on your own personal risk of addiction. Prescription drugs such as morphine, hydrocodone, oxycodone and codeine often contain opiates. Opiates are highly effective at reducing physical pain but can give the taker a sense of euphoria, which can become psychologically addictive. As a safety measure, in Australia anyone wishing to buy painkillers containing opiates is required by law to have a prescription from a licensed doctor. If you use painkillers as instructed, your risk of becoming addicted is low.

Editor's Note: In light of recent information from the Therapeutic Goods Administration, please see the following:

From 1 February 2018, medicines that contain low-dose codeine will no longer be available without prescription in pharmacies.

Your pharmacist will be able to help you choose from a range of effective products that do not require a prescription. If you have strong or chronic (long-lasting) pain you will need to consult your doctor, and if medicines are part of your treatment, a prescription may be needed.

Why is access to low-dose codeine-containing medicines changing?

Some Australians don't realise how much harm codeine can cause.

Codeine is an opioid drug closely related to morphine and, like morphine, is derived from opium poppies. Codeine can cause opioid tolerance, dependence, addiction, poisoning and in high doses, death. Regular use of medicines containing codeine, for example for chronic pain, has led to some consumers becoming addicted to codeine without realising it. The risks associated with codeine use are too high without oversight from a doctor.

Most Australians are unaware that over-the-counter medicines containing codeine for pain relief offer very little additional benefit when compared with - medicines without codeine. The use of such medicines however, is associated with high health risks, such as developing tolerance or physical dependence on codeine.

Further information on the reasons for the change can be found on the TGA website. 

Myth 2: It’s better to avoid taking them altogether
Knowing that there’s the potential to abuse prescription painkillers can give you the sense that it’s better to avoid taking them at all. While there is a small element of risk associated with taking strong medicine, they would not be available for us if they were not helpful.

If you are suffering from acute pain, either following surgery or to treat a long-term condition, you have a legitimate reason to take painkillers. In addition to treating pain, some chronic  sufferers do see improvements in their functioning after taking the medication.

For most people, however, prescription pain medicine should be a short-term treatment only.

Myth 3: The more you take the better they work
This belief revolves around both prescription and non-prescription drugs, but it is inaccurate. Knowing how painkillers work in your body helps us understand why correct dosage is important.

After being administered, painkillers travel through your circulatory system, racing to target pain receptors before the organs snare and neutralise them. After the drug is swallowed, it passes through the stomach, into the bloodstream and through the liver, where some of it is neutralised.

What remains of the drug travels around the body until it locates an area where the pain response is in full swing and settles there to help block the transmission of pain signals. Painkillers reach their maximum effect within one or two hours. This short Ted Ed video gives a great explanation.

More of a pill does not equal better effectiveness. For short-term pain, taking two pills may be effective when treating chronic or severe pain, such as an injury. However, taking too much can backfire.

Some research suggests that overuse of painkillers sensitises part of the nervous system and changes the way your brain and spinal cord interprets pain signals.

In other words, you can grow a tolerance to the medication over time, meaning you’ll need more and more.

If you are concerned about how a pain medication may affect you, speak to your doctor.

This article has been updated to include more information about codeine.

RELATED ARTICLES





    COMMENTS

    To make a comment, please register or login
    Wynhill
    20th Jul 2017
    1:03pm
    This article is very poorly written and inaccurate.To give just a couple of examples- it says:

    "Prescription drugs such as morphine, hydrocodone, oxycodone and codeine often contain opiates." This is very misleading as ALL the named drugs actually ARE opiates!

    Then, it goes on to say that: "Opiates are highly effective at reducing physical pain but can give the taker a sense of euphoria, which can become psychologically addictive."

    This is misleading and dangerous. ALL the drugs listed here are PHYSICALLY as well as psychologically addictive if taken in large enough doses long enough. They are ALL opiates and are ALL closely related to opium and heroin and have very similar effects. They all have the ability to reduce pain and can be extremely useful for people suffering serious pain, but they all share a high potential for serious addiction that can be extremely difficult to beat.

    I think you should quickly post a correction and an apology to your readers and replace this wrong information with carefully researched and checked FACTS.
    GeorgeM
    20th Jul 2017
    2:04pm
    Agree, Wynhill, many inaccuracies. Add the following:
    a. "As a safety measure, in Australia anyone wishing to buy painkillers containing opiates is required by law to have a prescription from a licensed doctor." Many, such as Codeine based products are available across the counter at Pharmacies, some at supermarkets. However, there was a plan announced to make them prescription only perhaps later this year / next year?
    b. "For most people, however, prescription pain medicine should be a short-term treatment only." - Most Chronic sufferers, who would be the majority using such medications, would not agree.
    Blossom
    21st Jul 2017
    6:19am
    Some painkilles such as morphine require you to be weaned off them.
    In hospitals when it is administered in an IV pump it will only release a certain amount at a time. Even if you push the button on it too close together it will not administer.
    Kathleen
    20th Jul 2017
    2:19pm
    After surgery it is important to stay ahead of the pain and as the days go by you gradually reduce the drugs until you have tapered off. Your body cannot heal if it is dealing with pain so skipping for fear of addiction is foolish.
    Common sense dictates the use.
    johninmelb
    20th Jul 2017
    8:41pm
    The most important fact about painkillers is so secret the vast majority people have no idea about it.

    However, I am happy to divulge it here. "Take only as directed, and see your doctor if pain persists." Follow that and you will never have any problems. Works for me.
    Blossom
    21st Jul 2017
    6:14am
    Overdosing of some medications can cause liver damage. I personally know of one person who had liver damage as a result of that. Sadly the person has since passed away from a non-related illness.
    johninmelb
    21st Jul 2017
    12:03pm
    Yep. I knew a woman years ago, an ex-nurse would you believe.

    She was addicted to Bex powders. Who remembers those?

    Totally wrecked her liver and had a very unpleasant death.

    She is the reason I am very circumspect with painkillers. Often my little battery operated TENS machine will give me better pain relief, and it is harmless.


    Join YOURLifeChoices, it’s free

    • Receive our daily enewsletter
    • Enter competitions
    • Comment on articles