Chronic pain is a physically debilitating and mentally exhausting reality for more than 20 percent of American adults. Sadly, relief for chronic pain is hard to come by, and it impacts nearly every aspect of a person's life, making it difficult or outright injurious to participate in daily activities. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), chronic pain is among the most common reasons people seek medical care. Unfortunately, prescriptions for opioids are the easiest and most common solutions to chronic pain and pain management, partly fueling the ongoing opioid epidemic. Patients seek medical advice to hopefully relieve their ongoing chronic pain and find a safe approach to pain management, but the commonly prescribed opioid medications come with disastrous side effects. The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that between 21 and 29 percent of patients who are prescribed opioids to treat chronic pain eventually misuse their medications, and 8 to 12 percent of those people meet the criteria for an opioid use disorder. When you consider the staggering amount of opioid prescriptions given out to patients, those numbers become tragic. In 2019 alone, almost fifty thousand people died from opioid overdoses, and that number has more than doubled in the past ten years, indicating an upward trend. For patients who confront chronic pain, the challenge often becomes twofold: to find better pain management without the use of opioids, and to find evidence-based treatment that addresses any opioid misuse or addiction. Fortunately, there are a number of alternative treatments and pain management plans that can help people address their chronic pain without addictive medications, and there are proven approaches to treating opioid addiction that can help someone break the cycle of addiction. What Is Chronic Pain? The CDC defines chronic pain as any pain that lasts more than three months or pain that persists beyond the usual timeframe for tissue healing. Chronic pain can result from a number of causes, including: Underlying diseases Injury Inflammation Medical treatment Regardless of its origin, chronic pain often forces a person to withdraw from their roles in work, family and hobbies. In this way, chronic pain becomes terribly isolating, and might cause people to feel hopeless without a good pain management plan that allows them to re-engage with the pastimes they love. Why Are Prescription Opioids So Dangerous for People with Chronic Pain? For people with chronic pain, opioid prescriptions can fulfill a need, dulling the pain enough to permit a return to more fulfilling lifestyles. But the addictive nature of opioids is dangerous, because people who experience chronic pain can easily fall into a pattern of opioid misuse, where they take more than indicated. When chronic pain can be dulled with a pill, people might not learn other pain management techniques, and may rely too quickly or too often on an opioid to find pain relief. This is especially true if a person experiences feelings of euphoria, or intense pleasure, and continually seeks those feelings out—consciously or otherwise. And when a person with chronic pain has an opportunity for instant relief, much less euphoria, the susceptibility for misuse is particularly high. Once a person develops a dependence to opioids, it's extremely hard to beat without medical care. A person will experience cravings for more opioids and withdrawal symptoms when they can't find them. This is why many people end up experimenting with heroin or other opiates: they become physically and mentally dependent on opioids, and their addiction pushes them to find an alternative. What Is Opioid Addiction? Opioid addiction, also known as opioid use disorder, is a chronic substance use disorder affecting both the body and brain. Common signs of opioid addiction include: Opioid use that interferes with a person's duties, including work, school or home life Unsuccessful attempts to stop or cut down on opioid use Development of tolerance, where greater amounts of opioids are needed to achieve the desired result Withdrawal symptoms when not using opioids, including anxiety, nausea, insomnia, sweating and increased heart rate Cravings or strong urges to use opioids Opioids are highly addictive, and some people may even be unaware of their own addiction to opioids. Many people who take their prescription as directed have reported that their ongoing use, although done responsibly, led to withdrawal, cravings and other symptoms listed above. Other side effects and symptoms of opioid addiction include: Problematic mental health, behavioral or psychological changes such as agitation, poor judgement or apathy Drowsiness or coma Impaired mental functioning Slurred speech Constricted pupils Euphoria Slowed-down respiration Dry mouth Nausea Constipation Abdominal cramping Skin rashes and infections Weight gain Menstrual problems Depression Click here for a full list of side effects and symptoms related to opioid use, withdrawal and overdose. What's a Better, Non-Addictive Approach to Pain Management? There are a number of effective pain management approaches that don't involve addictive opioids, and research into these alternative approaches has grown dramatically in the wake of the opioid epidemic. A growing number of mental health advocates, physicians and other professionals in the fields of integrative and holistic medicine are pursuing proper training to more effectively deliver these treatments and therapies for pain management. Alternative treatments and therapies for chronic pain include: Cognitive behavioral therapy, where a person learns to challenge unhelpful thought patterns and develop adaptive ways to think about chronic pain Acceptance commitment therapy, where a person learns to detach from unhelpful thought patterns and put energy into more fulfilling activities Mindfulness-based approaches, where a person develops mindfulness skills like meditation that promote a nonjudgmental acceptance of the moment Lifestyle interventions, where a person changes their diet, activities and social engagements to alleviate pain and enable fuller life participation How Can I Treat my Opioid Dependence or Addiction? For people who experience chronic pain and a co-occurring addiction, treatment is often necessary. Addiction treatment in either an outpatient or residential setting can set the stage for long-term recovery. Effective opioid addiction treatment often involves group and individual counseling, along with medication-assisted therapy to manage cravings and withdrawal symptoms. Many people in recovery from opioid addiction also find great benefit in 12 Step meetings, which provide ongoing support for a life without the use of opioids or other drugs. There Is Hope If you or someone you care about is experiencing chronic pain, know that there are effective ways to manage the chronic pain without the use of addictive opioid medications. Additionally, for people with chronic pain who are experiencing opioid addiction, there are proven strategies to treat the co-occurring chronic pain and substance use. A fulfilling life free from debilitating chronic pain and addiction is absolutely available to you.