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Myth: Taking Opioid Painkillers Leads to Drug Addiction

We’ve all read sensational stories of addiction. So it’s no surprise that many people with chronic pain fear that taking opioids will result in drug addiction.  As a result, some people with terrible chronic pain refuse medication that could really help them.

"When they're taken in the short-term and used as directed, the risk of becoming addicted to an opioid medication is very, very low," says Cohen.

There are instances where doctors need to be especially careful with opioids, says Oaklander. For instance, people who have a strong personal or family history of addiction are at higher risk. "But even they can use these drugs safely in some cases," she says, "although preferably with the guidance of a pain specialist."

Myth: Taking Opioid Painkillers Will Completely Cure Chronic Pain

Although opioids are effective at treating pain, they are not the Holy Grail of pain relief. Some people think that if they could only get their doctor to give them a prescription, their troubles would be over.

"There's a big downside to treatment with opioids," says Cohen. They're not effective with all types of pain. They can cause unpleasant side effects. A physical dependency can develop if pain management and treatment is not monitored. That's not an addiction -- instead, their bodies acclimate to the medication. Over time they need higher doses to get the same level of relief.

Opioids seem to increase the risk that other treatment approaches will fail. There's even evidence that opioids can result in chronic pain, Cohen says. A person with mild, occasional headaches might develop chronic, debilitating ones after using high doses of opioids.

So depending on the cause of chronic pain, opioid painkillers might help. But they're not the universal "best" treatment for chronic pain. They're just one tool among many others, from anti-inflammatory medicines to alternative therapies such as acupuncture.  

Fact: There's Rarely a Single Treatment That Will Cure Chronic Pain

"People with chronic pain often have this misconception," says Savage. "They think that they'll be able to find this one perfect treatment that will cure their pain."

Maybe it's a new drug or a new surgical technique that they read about in the paper. Or maybe it's a device or a supplement they see advertised on a 3 a.m. infomercial. But they're hoping that there's one answer for them that will take their pain away completely.

Coping with chronic pain is rarely that simple. Savage says that tackling chronic pain often requires a team of experts using a combination of approaches -- different medications, physical therapy, psychological counseling, relaxation techniques, and more -- to get it the pain control.

Adopt realistic expectations. You will get better, but it will take some hard work, different treatments, and time.

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