19 Mar Addiction Fears Prevent Cancer Patients from Getting Pain Relief
Recent reports have estimated that up to half of all cancer patients are not being adequately treated for pain. Cancer, especially late-stage terminal cancer, can cause severe and chronic pain. Patients, their loved ones and their caregivers all want to reduce this pain and make life as comfortable as possible, but painkillers are being held back for many because of one scary reason: fear of addiction. The narcotic painkillers needed to control the severe pain of terminal cancer patients are highly addictive, but is the fear justified?
About Narcotic Painkillers
Prescription narcotic painkillers have been in the news a lot in the last few years and have gained a bad reputation. These drugs are in a class called opioids and include hydrocodone, morphine, hydromorphone, oxycodone and others.
Narcotics relieve pain by acting on opioid receptors in the brain. This action causes a flood of the pleasure chemical called dopamine, which results in pain relief and a feeling of euphoria. It is this latter effect that makes the drug susceptible to abuse. Millions of people have abused and become dependent on these drugs. Many have also had fatal overdoses.
The Myth of Addiction
Narcotics are potent painkillers and they can provide terminally ill patients with a great deal of relief and comfort. The stories about abuse and addiction have possibly caused these drugs to be under-prescribed in the special population of late-stage cancer patients, those who truly need them. While opioids are highly addictive, it is a myth that anyone who uses them will get hooked. When used correctly and as directed they are mostly safe.
One major misconception that leads to under-prescription for cancer patients is that addiction and physical dependence are the same and equally bad. Addiction refers to a psychological need for a drug. Someone who is addicted needs the drug to get high. A cancer patient may become physically dependent on a painkiller, but this is not the same as addiction. He may need to drug to feel relief from pain, but is not chasing a high. A patient dependent on a painkiller can stop using the drug if he is weaned from it, slowly.
Helping Cancer Patients Get Relief
Experts suggest that cancer patients need more relief from pain and that education about painkillers, addiction and dependence is the place to start. More doctors, and their patients, need to understand that the benefits of using narcotics may outweigh the risks. Each situation is different and each patient is unique, but with a better understanding of the risks and the realities of narcotics, more patients should find relief from these drugs.
It’s also important that doctors, caregivers and loved ones of patients are able to recognize the signs of addiction. These include secretive behaviors, taking more of a drug that was prescribed and trying to hide this fact, forging prescriptions or doctor shopping to get more drugs or buying drugs from an illicit source. When a patient follows his doctor’s instructions about taking the medication and communicates with his doctor when his needs change, he is exhibiting normal and non-addictive behaviors.
Some experts in the field of pain management also suggest that complementary medicine could be used to supplement the pain relief of prescription drugs. This might include using alternative health practices such as massage or acupuncture. Whatever can be done to help terminal patients in pain get relief should be considered. A better understanding of opioid painkillers and addiction along with good communication between doctor and patient will go a long way toward helping terminal patients feel more comfortable at the end of their lives.
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