With more than 20,000 fatal overdoses in the U.S. each year, opioid addiction is a growing epidemic. What many people aren’t aware of, though, is that the root of this problem quite often stems from patients taking pain medication initially prescribed by their doctor. In fact, according to the National Safety Council, four out of five heroin users’ habits evolved through the use of prescription pain killers. Once the addiction is established, people often switch to heroin because it’s cheaper and easier to get ahold of than the drug with which they started.
While awareness of opioid addiction is growing, there is still a lot of confusion about these drugs and how to take them properly. If you’re experiencing dental pain or are preparing for an upcoming dental procedure, the following information can help you understand what opioids are, how they work and how to take them safely, if needed.
Opioids—also known as narcotic pain medications—are intended to treat severe pain. They reduce the amount of pain messages delivered to the brain as they attach to opioid receptors in the body. According to Paul Manos, DDS, Dental Director for United Concordia Dental in California, opioids are commonly prescribed for dental pain, including toothaches, abscesses and TMJ pain. Dentists can also prescribe these medications to help manage pain after various dental procedures, such as:
- Periodontal (gum) surgery
- Endodontic (root) surgery
- TMJ (jaw) surgery
- Dental implant surgery
- Orthognathic surgeries (used for tooth and jaw repositioning)
- Tooth extractions, such as wisdom teeth removal
The most common opioids for dental pain are acetaminophen with codeine (such as Tylenol 3 and Codrix), acetaminophen and oxycodone (Percocet) and hydrocodone (Vicodin and Norco). All of these medications contain acetaminophen, and combining them can lead to liver damage or failure.
Should You Take Them?
Just because you’re prescribed with an opioid doesn’t mean that you have to take it. Some people can get by without taking anything, and many can find relief by taking over-the-counter nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like aspirin, naproxen and ibuprofen. According to the National Safety Council, NSAIDs can be just as effective at treating dental pain as opioids, providing the same amount of relief with fewer side effects. Check with your physician or dentist.
If you decide not to take your prescribed medication, make sure to dispose of it safely. Each year, the DEA holds National Take Back Drug Day. This event provides collection sites where people can drop off their unwanted drugs, preventing them from falling into the wrong hands or poisoning our waterways.
How to Avoid a Habit
If you do take a prescription opioid, keep in mind that you don’t have to finish the bottle. Dental surgeries mostly cause temporary pain, and these drugs are not meant to be taken for long periods of time. Bear in mind that anyone who uses prescription pain killers can get addicted. If you do choose to take a prescription opioid, follow these guidelines suggested by Dr. Manos:
- Don’t take them unless you feel it is absolutely necessary
- Always follow the directions for use
- Don’t mix with other drugs, including alcohol
- Don’t take them for longer than 3 days – if pain persists, ask your doctor about alternate treatments
*If you or someone you know is suffering from addiction, call 1-800-662-HELP (4357) for information on treatment and support.