How is chronic pain treated?
Treatment of chronic pain usually involves medicines and therapy. Medicines used for chronic pain include pain relievers, antidepressants and anticonvulsants. Different types of medicines help people who have different types of pain. You usually use long-acting medicines for constant pain. Short-acting medicines treat pain that comes and goes.
What drugs can treat chronic pain?
Many medicines can decrease pain, including the ones listed below. Each one may have side effects. Some side effects can be serious. It's important to listen to your family doctor carefully when he or she tells you how to use your pain medicine. If you have questions about side effects or about how much medicine to take, ask your doctor or your pharmacist.
Acetaminophen (one brand name: Tylenol) helps many kinds of chronic pain. Remember, many over-the-counter and prescription pain medicines have acetaminophen in them. If you're not careful, you could take more acetaminophen than is good for you. Taking too much acetaminophen could cause liver damage, especially if you drink alcohol. If you often find that you have to take more than 2 acetaminophen pills a day, tell your doctor.
Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs)
Other drugs that help with pain are called nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs. Examples include aspirin, ibuprofen (two brand names: Motrin, Advil) and naproxen (one brand name: Aleve). NSAIDs come in both over-the-counter and prescription forms. These medicines can be taken just when you need them, or they can be taken every day. When these medicines are taken regularly, they build up in the blood to levels that fight the pain of inflammation (swelling) and also give general pain relief.
If your doctor wants you to take an NSAID, always take it with food or milk because the most common side effects are related to the stomach. They can also cause increased bruising or risk of bleeding in the stomach. When taken for long periods of time, they may cause kidney damage. NSAIDs may make high blood pressure worse or interfere with blood pressure medicines.
If you are taking other pain medicines, don't take NSAIDs without talking to your doctor first.
Narcotics can be addictive, so your family doctor will be careful about prescribing them. For many people who have severe chronic pain, these drugs are an important part of their therapy. If your doctor prescribes narcotics for your pain, be sure to carefully follow his or her directions. Tell your doctor if you are uncomfortable with the changes that may go along with taking these medicines, such as the inability to concentrate or think clearly. Do not drive or operate heavy machinery when taking these medicines.
When you're taking narcotics, it's important to remember that there is a difference between "physical dependence" and "psychological addiction." Physical dependence on a medicine means that your body gets used to that medicine and needs it in order to work properly. When you don't have to take the pain medicine any longer, your doctor can help you slowly and safely decrease the amount of medicine until your body no longer "needs" it.
Psychological addiction is the desire to use a drug whether or not it's needed to relieve pain. Using a narcotic this way can be dangerous and may not help your pain. If you have a psychological addiction to a narcotic, your doctor may give you another drug to help with your psychological problems. Or your doctor might recommend that you talk to a counselor. Your doctor might also change the medicine that you are addicted to by lowering the dose, changing to another drug or stopping the medicine altogether.
Narcotic drugs often cause constipation (difficulty having bowel movements). If you are taking a narcotic medicine, it's important to drink at least 6 to 8 glasses of water every day. Try to eat 2 to 4 servings of fresh fruits and 3 to 5 servings of vegetables every day. Be sure to tell your doctor if constipation becomes a problem for you. He or she may suggest taking laxatives to treat or prevent it.
Many drugs that are used to treat other illnesses can also treat pain. For example, carbamazepine is a seizure medicine that can also treat some kinds of pain. Amitriptyline is an antidepressant that can also help with chronic pain. Your doctor may want you to try one of these medicines to help control your pain. It can take several weeks before these medicines begin to work well.
Remember -- if you are taking any pain medicine, be sure to ask your doctor or pharmacist before you take any other medicine, either prescription or over-the-counter. You should also check with your doctor or pharmacist before taking an herbal supplement or vitamin.
Written by familydoctor.org editorial staff