At some point in your life, you will probably be in a situation in which a doctor will prescribe you some serious pain meds. Maybe you’ve just had surgery, taken a nasty spill, or been in an accident. But with great relief comes great responsibility, as Uncle Ben almost said. So what happens if you’re prescribed drugs like Vicodin or Percocet? Do you take them, or do you not?
Of course, whether you decide to take them strongly depends on the kind of pain you’re in. Many prescription opioid drugs like those listed above can be incredibly addictive and incredibly dangerous. Nearly 2 million Americans either abused these drugs or became dependent on them just in 2014, says the CDC. And in that one year, 14,000 people died of overdoses from prescription opioids.
50% of opioid prescriptions come from primary care providers. In 2013, doctors wrote 207 million prescriptions for them, for everything from cancer to bone fractures and headaches. But are they always the best option? Not necessarily, given their intimidating consequences.
People are more inclined to abuse opioids if there is a history of it in their family, or if they or family members have struggled with abusing other substances, smoking, alcoholism, or even anxiety and depression. If you are suffering from something like cancer or if you’ve just had heart surgery, then yes, it’s unlikely a few pills of Advil can help and you will likely need to bring the big guns in. But the risk of addiction and other factors means that opioids are a poor recommendation for chronic pain or pain from headaches which can be neutralized by over-the-counter remedies.
Ideally, even when you do go on a regimen of opioids, it should be for the short-term. “Three days or less will often be sufficient; more than seven days will rarely be needed,” say the CDC recommendations. However, some doctors are prescribing the drugs for 15 to 30 days, says Dr. Gary Franklin, a research professor at the University of Washington and the medical director of the Washington Department of Labor and Industries.
27% of patients who were prescribed the drugs on a short-term basis ended up taking them for much longer than they needed, some research indicates, and many of those patients shouldn’t have received those prescriptions anyway. After 12 weeks of taking opioids, severe withdrawal attacks set in, and the pain intended to be healed can get even worse.
Avoid opioids if you can and if your pain isn’t severe. If it is severe and you need things like Percocet, start with a low dosage and go low—and taper off after a few days.