Managing Chronic Pain in the Recovered Addict

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For regular readers of our blog, you know that much of our topics focus on changing addictive behaviors, controlling urges and avoiding temptation. Building your life after an addiction has many challenges, but sobriety is always the goal. But what if you are one of the millions of Americans who depend on pain medication for treating chronic pain? How do you successfully balance the treatment of chronic pain with a sober lifestyle?

Although it can seem impossible at times, it IS possible to manage and treat chronic pain without relapsing.

Polar Opposites: How Our Attitude toward Pain Medications Has Changed

The relationship between addiction and treating pain with narcotics has always been on the hot seat. Throughout much of last century, it was largely believed that painkillers would result in addiction, so doctors were hesitant to prescribe these drugs. While playing it safe seemed to have its advantages, it also meant that people were suffering unnecessarily from pain when there were drugs available to help.

Fast forward to the past decade, and a whole new attitude emerged. All of a sudden, pain medication was the answer for everything, and it was believed that the side effects to the drugs were minimal. People started developing a false sense of security, and the medications were being used incorrectly. The wide availability of these drugs has not only affected those who take them, but also the young, impressionable teens who can routinely find them tucked away in their parents’ and grandparents’ medicine cabinets.

Fortunately, we are moving in the right direction, as we now recognize the importance of these medications; although we also know that they can be easily misused and have an addictive component. Finding the appropriate balance may not be easy for everyone, primarily those who have an addiction, but it is certainly possible.

Achieving Safe Pain Relief in Substance Abuse Patients

A study conducted in 2002 by The Primary Care Companion reported that pain management can be safely achieved in individuals with substance abuse problems, providing that doctors follow very specific guidelines from the World Health Organization and The Joint Commission. Of specific concern is that doctors know how to treat acute, chronic and end-of-life pain. Follow-up care is also essential.

More specifically, medications need to be chosen based on their ability to treat the particular type of pain. Doctors need to determine how much pain the patient is actually in and recommend the proper dosage. This can be difficult since pain is subjective, but using a pain scale can help in making the proper recommendations. It’s also best that pain meds provide around-the-clock relief instead of short, intense blocks of relief. Continuous relief is better for the patient, and it lowers the risk of becoming dependent on the drug because of its short, feel-good effects.

The Importance of a Comprehensive Treatment Plan

Of course, there is much more that goes into writing a prescription, but the above suggestions are some of the basics. When doctors prescribe the right drug in the right dosage and follow-up with their patient regularly, it reduces the risk of addiction. However, it’s important to note that many doctors lack the proper training in pain management and addiction. While you need a doctor who understands your situation and effectively monitors your treatment plan, it’s also up to you to take control of your short- and long-term care.

For instance, having other forms of therapy is beneficial. If you depend solely on pain medication, the brain may start relying only on drugs for relief. Pain meds should be used in conjunction with other therapies, such as meditation, stretching or massage therapy. Think about the coping strategies that have helped you get through your addiction and how they can be used to manage your pain and lessen your dependence on conventional medication.

Addiction is a disease, and it has a strong  genetic component, so you can’t always control how your body and brain will react to narcotics. Still, take comfort in knowing that the vast majority of people who take pain medications do not develop an addiction. Of course, someone who has already struggled with addiction has unique challenges, but that doesn’t mean that finding a balance is impossible. Since addiction and chronic pain may reinforce each other, it’s highly recommended that you work with one doctor to prescribe all medications, continue a safe, stable home and work life and adopt healthy coping mechanisms.