Treating Pain and Preventing Addiction in Cancer Patients
Pain is one of the most common symptoms in cancer patients. The pain patients experience can be caused by both the cancer itself and/or the treatments that they undergo in effort to eradicate the cancer. The type of pain a patient undergoes depends on a number of factors including: the type of cancer, how advanced the cancer is, where the cancer is located, and personal pain tolerance. Tumors can press on nerves, bones, and organs as they grow, causing debilitating aches and pains. Additionally, methods such as surgery, radiation, diagnostic procedures, and chemotherapy treatment can also all cause hampering pain.
Younger patients are more likely to have cancer pain and pain flares than older patients, and patients with advanced cancer typically have more severe pain than others. Pain that is severe and/or continues after cancer treatment ends is called chronic pain; chronic pain is caused by nerve changes and can be present at all-times. Some patients may be disabled by their pain, unable to work or do everyday things on their own such as bathing, cooking, and eating. People might feel great emotional distress and grief due to these losses, which increases the chance of developing mental health disorders like depression and anxiety. Therefore, pain management is essential to improving and maintaining quality of life in patients.
Prescription pain medications are typically prescribed to help manage chronic pain in cancer patients. These are usually strong opioids, including:
Opioids are highly addictive and powerful drugs; however, the risk for addiction amongst cancer patients that take pain medications as directed is low. Nevertheless, addiction can happen.
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Drug Addiction and Cancer Patients
Prescription opioids are typically safe when used as directed, but people who do not explicitly follow their doctor’s instructions or misuse their medication can become addicted. Most patients have no initial intention of abusing their prescription; however, many develop a physical dependence, even when taking their drugs as prescribed.
Over a period of time, a person routinely using an opioid prescription may start to feel as if the drug is no longer effectively managing pain as well as it once was in the beginning. This feeling is caused by an increased tolerance to the painkiller, which means that the substance has built up within the body and is no longer as potent. A tolerance can then cause a person to take larger doses than their recommended amount in order to achieve the pain-relieving effects they want. Increasing the medication dosage can then lead to a physical dependence, which is characterized by tolerance and the appearance of withdrawal symptoms when use is reduced or ended.
A physical dependence can cause a patient to take more of their drugs than prescribed, or abuse their medication in other ways, such as doctor shopping for more prescriptions or buying drugs from illegal drug dealers. Eventually a full-blown addiction may develop, whereby the user continues taking their drug of choice despite negative consequences.
The problem is quite severe. A 2018 study found that for every additional week that patients take prescription opioids, the likelihood of them abused the drugs increases by 20%. Each time a prescription is refilled, the chance of misuse rose by 44%.
Signs of an Opioid Addiction
Addiction is a disease and causes people to feel as if they can’t function without the drug that they are addicted to. One of the main signs of opioid addiction is craving the medication and using the drug beyond its prescription, even though the patient knows that it’s harmful. Other examples of opioid addiction include:
- Taking the drug more frequently than prescribed
- Taking the medication for the “high”
- Taking larger doses than prescribed
- Using the prescription with other medications without a doctor’s knowledge or approval
- Mixing the medication with recreational drugs or alcohol
- Isolation from friends and family
- Excessive drowsiness or sedation
- Changes in sleep habits
- Seeking opioids from multiple doctors
- Running out of prescription early
- Experiencing withdrawal symptoms upon reduction or cessation of use
- Mental confusion
- Nodding off at random times or loss of consciousness
- Euphoria or extreme happiness
- Lack of interest in activities previously enjoyed
- A persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control use
- Social or interpersonal problems
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Steps to Prevent Opioid Misuse and Addiction in Cancer Patients
If you feel your prescription isn’t helping control your pain, talk with your doctor. Being able to talk with your health care provider about your fears, pain, and other issues concerning treatment is crucial to preventing opioid misuse. Other important steps and precautions that patients should take to reduce chances of addiction include:
- Set a goal for pain management and follow the plan
- Monitor the success of the treatment regimen
- Track your pain on a 0 to 10 pain scale, and communicate the strength and prevalence of your pain to your doctor.
- Follow medication directions, and only take the drug as prescribed.
- Be aware of potential interactions your medication can cause when mixed with other drugs and/or alcohol.
- Never change the dosage or take a larger dose of medication without first consulting a doctor.
- Never share your own medication or use another person’s prescription.
Additionally, there are other pain management techniques that do not include opioids that can be effective in treating pain in cancer patients. Therapeutic approaches such as acupuncture, massage, physical therapy, relaxation, meditation, and hypnosis have all proven to be useful in reducing pain and pain flares. There are also specialized treatments such as nerve blocks and other interventions that medical professionals can prescribe that are good pain management alternatives to opioids.
If you are an individual that is recovering from cancer and struggling with an opioid addiction, know that you’re not alone and that there is help available. Addressing both cancer pain and substance abuse can be challenging, but has proven to be very successful when involving a multidisciplinary rehabilitation team. Methadone has also shown great results for simultaneously treating both opioid addiction and helping reduce pain in cancer patients. So don’t wait; contact a dedicated treatment provider, and learn about your options today.