Managing pain safely

By Dr. Bryan Alsip

The opioid crisis has been in the headlines for quite a while now. An estimated 115 Americans die each day from opioid overdose, according to federal estimates. Bexar County leads the state in infant opioid withdrawal and has the third-highest rate of overdose deaths in Texas.

Dr. Bryan Alsip, executive vice president and chief medical officer, described it this way in an article he wrote for the San Antonio Express-News with Dr. Colleen Bridger, director of the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District:

“No sector of our society is immune. Opioid misuse, addiction and overdose can be found in boardrooms and back alleys, among the highly educated and the homeless. Like any epidemic, it is blind to where you live or how much you earn.”

Dr. Alsip and Dr. Bridger are co-chairs of the Joint Opioid Task Force, a group of health professionals, community leaders, educators and advocates working to find local solutions to the opioid crisis.

University Health System has a new online site for patients and the public, offering information and advice for those prescribed opioids after an injury or procedure.

While these medicines can be an important part of your treatment, they also carry some significant risks of addiction and overdose. An overdose, often marked by slowed breathing, can cause sudden death. Opioids also can have side effects, particularly after prolonged use — even when used as directed. They include tolerance, physical dependence, increased sensitivity to pain, constipation, nausea, sleepiness, confusion, depression, low levels of testosterone, itching and sweating.

These risks are greater with a history of drug misuse, mental health conditions, sleep apnea, older age and pregnancy.

Avoid drinking alcohol while taking prescription opioids. Also, unless specifically advised by your healthcare provider, avoid taking benzodiazepines such as Xanax or Valium, muscle relaxants such as Soma or Flexeril, hypnotics such as Ambien or Lunesta, or other prescription opioids.

Store your medications in a secure place and out of reach of visitors, children, friends and family. If you have unused medication, safely dispose of it. The San Antonio Water System and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency both sponsor regular community drug take-back programs. Ask your pharmacy about mail-back or other disposal programs.

And if you think you have a problem with addiction, seek help from your healthcare provider or call the National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP.

You can learn more about opioids, including how to use and dispose of them safely, as well as alternative ways to control pain, at University Health System’s online opioid page.

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