Risk of Long-term Narcotic Use for Back Pain Management

October 30, 2012

As effective treatment for pain caused by cancer, narcotics (a.k.a opioids) are commonly used in the palliative care of cancer patients. But using narcotics for non cancer-related pain, such as back pain, has been controversial. One of the main concerns of using narcotics for back pain is the potential for prescription drug abuse and addiction.

How narcotics work as back pain management

As pain medication, narcotics work by affecting pain receptors’ ability of receiving pain signals. Narcotics do not address the cause of pain; they just block the feeling of pain. In other words, narcotics do not make the pain disappear. If you are using narcotics as your back pain management, your body may gradually develop tolerance to the drugs, which means you will have to increase the dose to receive the same degree pain relief.

Benefits and risks of narcotics for back pain

Narcotics can provide effective, short-term back pain relief. However, evidence of the long-term effectiveness of narcotics as back pain medication is not conclusive. While some physicians believe long-term use of narcotic drugs for chronic pain can help reduce or prevent depression and anxiety caused by chronic pain, others suggest alternative treatment options with equivalent benefits but fewer long-term risks should be considered first.

Narcotics and alcohol

While the long-term benefits and risks of narcotics for back pain treatment are still not very clear, it is clear that narcotics and alcohol should not be mixed. If you are a heavy drinker, you need to be very careful about using narcotics for back pain because taking them together can be very dangerous. Research has shown that the interaction between alcohol and narcotics enhances the sedative power of both. For example, the combination of large amount of alcohol and narcotics can lead to respiratory depression (a.k.a hypoventilation). And when mixed with alcohol, painkillers consisting both acetaminophen and narcotics, such as Vicodin, can cause severe liver damage.

Narcotics can be effective in pain management, but it also poses risks if used as long-term back pain medication. If you are using narcotic drugs for back pain treatment, you should strictly follow your doctor’s instruction. And once your pain has lessened, you should talk to your doctor to find out if you can switch to a non-narcotic drug.