What are the risks of using opioid pain medication?

Travis M. Hendry, MD
Orthopedic Surgery
Used as directed, opioid pain medication can be safe and effective. However, it can also pose some risks and potential dangers:
  • Opioids can interact in a dangerous way with alcohol, recreational drugs, or certain medications.
  • Opioids can cause various side effects. The most common side effect is constipation. Most patients need to drink extra water and take fiber, laxatives, or stool softeners. The most serious side effect is decreased breathing (also called respiratory depression), which can be deadly.
  • There may be risks with taking opioid medications in pregnancy. Talk to your doctor.
  • If you take an opioid medication for long periods of time, you can develop a tolerance so it is less effective. If this happens, your doctor may need to change the dose or medication.
  • If you stop the medication suddenly, you may have withdrawal symptoms.
  • Opioid therapy poses a risk of addiction or abuse. Addiction is the compulsive use of a medication, even if it causes harm. Abuse is using a medication for non-medical purposes (such as getting "high"). Addiction and abuse are common and treatable disorders. This risk is low in the general population, but it may be higher in young people, smokers, and people with a variety of risk factors.
The main effects and risks of using opioids include nausea and constipation, accidental overdose, and addiction, if they are used long term. Watch pain management expert Devi Nampiaparampil, MD, discuss the various risks of taking opioid medications.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.