Taking narcotics for back pain
Narcotics are strong drugs that are sometimes used to treat pain. They are also called opioids. You take them only when your pain is so severe that you cannot work or do your daily tasks. They may also be used if other types of pain medicine do not relieve pain.
Narcotics can provide short-term relief of severe back pain. This can allow you to return to your normal daily routine.
Narcotics work by attaching themselves to pain receptors in your brain. Pain receptors receive chemical signals sent to your brain and help create the sensation of pain. When narcotics attach to pain receptors, the drug can block the feeling of pain. Even though narcotics can block the pain, they cannot cure the cause of your pain.
Nonspecific back pain - narcotics; Backache - chronic - narcotics; Lumbar pain - chronic - narcotics; Pain - back - chronic - narcotics; Chronic back pain - low - narcotics
Names of Narcotics
- Fentanyl (Duragesic). Comes as a patch that sticks to your skin.
- Hydrocodone (Vicodin)
- Hydromorphone (Dilaudid)
- Meperidine (Demerol)
- Morphine (MS Contin)
- Oxycodone (Oxycontin, Percocet, Percodan)
- Tramadol (Ultram)
Narcotics are called "controlled substances" or "controlled medicines." This means that their use is regulated by law. One reason for this is that narcotics can be addictive. To avoid narcotics addiction, take these drugs exactly as your health care provider and pharmacist prescribes.
DO NOT take narcotics for back pain for more than 3 to 4 months at a time. (This amount of time may even be too long for some people.) There are many other interventions of medications and treatments with good results for long term back pain.
How you take narcotics will depend on your pain. Your provider may advise you to take them only when you have pain. Or you may be advised to take them on a regular schedule if your pain is hard to control.
Some important guidelines to follow while taking narcotics include:
- DO NOT share your narcotic medicine with anyone.
- If you are seeing more than one provider, tell each one that you are taking narcotics for pain. Taking too much can cause an overdose or addiction. You should only get pain medicine from one physician.
- When your pain begins to lessen, talk with the provider you see for pain about switching to another kind of pain reliever.
- Store your narcotics safely. Keep them out of reach of children and others in your home.
Common Side Effects of Narcotics
Narcotics can make you sleepy and confused. Impaired judgment is common. When you are taking narcotics, DO NOT drink alcohol, use street drugs, or drive or operate heavy machinery.
These medicines can make your skin feel itchy. If this is a problem for you, talk with your provider about lowering your dose or trying another medicine.
Some people become constipated when taking narcotics. If this happens, your provider may advise you to drink more fluids, get more exercise, eat foods with extra fiber, or use stool softeners. Other medicines can often help with constipation.
If the narcotic medicine makes you feel sick to your stomach or causes you to throw up, try taking your medicine with food. Other medicines can often help with nausea, as well.
Chaparro LE, Furlan AD, Deshpande A, Mailis-Gagnon A, Atlas S, Turk DC. Opioids compared to placebo or other treatments for chronic low-back pain: an update of the Cochrane Review. Spine. 2014;39(7):556-563. PMID: 24480962 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24480962.
Dinakar P. Principles of pain management. In: Daroff RB, Jankovic J, Mazziotta JC, Pomeroy SL, eds. Bradley's Neurology in Clinical Practice. 7th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2016:chap 54.
Turk DC. Psychosocial aspects of chronic pain. In: Benzon HT, Rathmell JP, WU CL, Turk DC, Argoff CE, Hurley RW, eds. Practical Management of Pain. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Mosby; 2014:chap 12.
Reviewed By: C. Benjamin Ma, MD, Professor, Chief, Sports Medicine and Shoulder Service, UCSF Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, San Francisco, CA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.