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4 Questions to Ask Your Doctor Before You Take Prescription Pain Medication

March 28, 2017

Prescription drugs for chronic pain are meant to help patients better manage pain and reduce the impact this pain may have on their daily lives.

But somewhere along the way, these prescriptions drugs have led to a major public health crisis. According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), in 2012 physicians and other health care providers wrote 259 million prescriptions for opioids, which is the medical name for prescription pain medications. These prescriptions were enough for every American adult to have a bottle in their medicine cabinet, according to the CDC.

While the CDC has issued new prescription guidelines for opioids to encourage more caution regarding the amount and frequency in which these drugs are prescribed, it’s also critical for patients to be informed consumers so they can be their own best advocate.

To this end, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) recently released a consumer update to give patients guidance on what they should ask their doctor before taking prescription pain medications. If you don’t know where to start, here are four questions you should ask your doctor:

Do I Actually Need this Medication?

In certain patients, opioids may not be the best option for pain relief, especially if you have acute and not chronic pain. If you have short-term pain, over-the-counter medications like Tylenol, Motrin, Aleve or Advil may be better alternatives. There’s also evidence that opioids aren’t the best treatment for chronic pain, because these drugs have a powerful impact on the brain that may lead to addiction with misuse or long-term use. One study found that patients who took prescription pain medications for at least 30 days still were using these medications three years later. Other treatment options, such as cognitive behavioral (talk) therapy, topical NSAIDs (pain relievers) or effective, yet less addictive prescription drugs like serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors or anticonvulsants may be better treatment options depending on the patient’s condition and diagnosis.

If I am Prescribed Prescription Pain Medications, What are the Risks?

If your doctor decides that opioids are a suitable treatment to manage your pain, the next question to ask is: what are the potential side effects? Learn what these side effects are and monitor yourself during the first few weeks of treatment to see if any of them occur. If they do and the medication doesn’t help to relieve your pain, call your doctor and discuss other treatment options.

You also should pay attention to how these drugs may interact with other medications you take. Come to your initial doctor’s appointment with a written list of your current medications, so your doctor can review it and make sure whatever medication he or she prescribes won’t lead to serious side effects or affect how well your other medications work. Also, don’t forget to ask your pharmacist for a medication guide, which will contain more information about your prescription. Doing all this due diligence and research should minimize potential side effects, or at the very least, prepare you for what to do next if you experience them.

What if I Have a History of Addiction?

If you have a history of addiction or a family history of this disease, you need to be open and honest about this with your doctor. This will lead to more careful monitoring if you’re prescribed opioids or your doctor may opt for alternative, non-opioid treatment plans.

If you are prescribed opioids and are concerned about the risk of addiction, talk to your family about signs and symptoms to watch for and changes in you that might indicate addiction or misuse. Also have a conversation with them about your pain medication regimen (the dose you must take, how frequently and the medication’s intended use) so they feel more empowered to help you get better quicker or intervene and encourage follow-up with your doctor, when appropriate.

Where Should I Store My Medication and What Should I Do with Leftover Pills?

If you have young children or teenagers in your home, store your prescription medication in a lockbox or in a place that is only easily accessible and known to you. This will reduce the risk of accident exposure, overdose or misuse of these drugs. Never share your medication with anyone else, either, even if you have leftover medication. Many municipalities have drug take-back days or drop-box locations where you can safely dispose of unused medication. Walgreens also has launched a drug take back program. The FDA also has created a list of prescription pain medication that you can flush down the toilet, thereby preventing intentional or accidental misuse and theft.

If for some reason you do take too much of your prescription, many pharmacies across the country now have a standing order to distribute naloxone, a lifesaving drug that can reverse an opioid overdose. Ask your doctor whether you can get this prescription, just in case an accidental overdose or misuse occurs in your home.

It may be cliche, but knowledge is power. Asking your doctor the right questions is an important part of taking control of your health. As physicians, we want to encourage patients to be their own advocates, and we want to work with you to ensure you stay in the best health. So, review the FDA’s recent consumer update, do your research and prepare a list of questions to ask your doctor if you’re currently experience acute or chronic pain. The only wrong questions are the ones you never ask.