Getting informed on opioids: Seniors should take a second look at prescriptions

IMG_4787By Deborah Rosenlund
for the CCCA Seniors Committee

These days you can’t swing a cat without hitting someone who has a prescription for pain medication. Evidently, active seniors can expect to eventually suffer a fall, a fracture, an injury or even surgery, requiring treatment for pain. Prescriptions, physiotherapy and other tried and true treatments become part of daily life, hopefully just for a while.

A wise doctor will caution patients, when handing over prescriptions for pain treatment. A careful warning, such as “While you are taking this drug, remember: it will affect your mobility!” is an important reminder for active seniors concerned about safety while taking pain medication.

We trust that prescription medications in Canada are regulated, tested and pure, but watch out, because one of the drugs is tricky.

A quick search on the internet reveals a nasty fact about opioids: too much can stop a person’s breathing. Ouch!

This can occur because the brainstem, which also controls breathing, contains numerous opioid receptors, so an overdose (accidental or prescribed by medication error) of a drug classified as an opioid could result in this type of accidental death.

In comparison, other tried-and-true pain medications will not stop breathing, i.e., cannabis products do not stop breathing in patients with chronic pain, as cannabinoid receptors are not located in the brainstem.

The number of Canadians (including 45-85% of seniors) currently on long term opioid therapy, often at high doses, is estimated to be close to a million. This is because opioids, for many physicians, are now a go-to first-line agent.

No doubt opioids have served society well: they make surgery easier, chronic pain more tolerable and give sweet comfort to patients in recovery. This is the result of carefully balancing the dosage strength with the amount of pain, found any day in any hospital.

But, through experience, we are discovering that seniors may not require larger dosages of opioids to benefit from their effects, and prescribers would do well to “start low and go slow.”

If you find yourself treating pain at home, it would be worthwhile to have a look at what you’re taking. Google or ask your doctor if your prescription medicine falls into the opioid family, then keep an eye-out for side effects and any safety or mobility concerns you have.

Patients can help themselves and their physicians when they make an effort to consult and exchange information: a knowledge-based approach to pain treatment works more efficiently to balance the risks and benefits.

Be curious and examine that prescription label. You will notice quite a variety of brand names, generic names, and names the industry comes up with when they combine the opioid with other drugs. The wording on your prescription bottle may look miles apart from anything you’ve read about or heard of concerning opioid overdoses, in the news etc.

And here’s an idea: find the pharmacy’s phone number on the bottle label, call and talk directly with the pharmacist and ask questions to double check the appropriate dosage, the maximum dosage, and drug interactions etc., to be on the safe side.

Let’s learn the facts and work together for better health, in order to enjoy an active and awesome autumn . . . not a great fall!