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Taking narcotics for back pain

Narcotics are strong drugs that are sometimes used to treat pain. They are also called opioids. You take them only when your pain is so severe that you cannot work or do your daily tasks. They may also be used if other types of pain medicine do not relieve pain.

Narcotics can provide short-term relief of severe back pain. This can allow you to return to your normal daily routine.

Narcotics work by attaching themselves to pain receptors in your brain. Pain receptors receive chemical signals sent to your brain and help create the sensation of pain. When narcotics attach to pain receptors, the drug can block the feeling of pain. Even though narcotics can stop the pain, they cannot cure the cause of your pain.

Alternate Names

Nonspecific back pain - narcotics; Backache - chronic - narcotics; Lumbar pain - chronic - narcotics; Pain - back - chronic - narcotics; Chronic back pain - low - narcotics

Names of Narcotics

  • Codeine
  • Fentanyl (Duragesic) -- this comes as a patch that sticks to your skin
  • Hydrocodone (Vicodin)
  • Hydromorphone (Dilaudid)
  • Meperidine (Demerol)
  • Morphine (MS Contin)
  • Oxycodone (Oxycontin, Percocet, Percodan)
  • Tramadol (Ultram)

Taking Narcotics

Narcotics are called “controlled substances” or “controlled medicines.” This means that their use is regulated by law. One of the reasons is that you can get addicted to narcotics. To keep from getting addicted, take narcotics exactly how your health care provider prescribed them.

You should not take narcotics for back pain for more than 3 - 4 months at a time, and even that may be too long for some people.

How you take narcotics will depend on your pain. Your health care provider may advise you to take them only when you have pain. Or, you may be advised to take them on a regular schedule if your pain is hard to control.

You need to follow some important guidelines if you are taking narcotics that your health care provider prescribed for you:

  • Do not share your narcotic medicine with anyone.
  • If you are seeing more than one health care provider, tell each one that you are taking narcotics for pain. Taking too much can cause an overdose or addiction.
  • When your pain begins to lessen, talk with the health care provider you see for pain about switching to another kind of pain reliever.
  • Store your narcotics safely. Keep them out of reach of children and others in your home.

Common Side Effects of Narcotics

Narcotics can:

  • Make you sleepy and confused. Impaired judgment is common. When you are taking narcotics, do not drink alcohol, use street drugs, or drive or operate heavy machinery.
  • Make your skin feel itchy. If this is a problem for you, talk with your health care provider about lowering your dose or trying another medicine.
  • Cause constipation (not being able to have a bowel movement easily). If this happens, your health care provider may advise you to drink more fluids, get more exercise, eat foods with extra fiber, or use stool softeners. Other medications can often help with constipation.
  • Make you feel sick to your stomach or cause you to throw up. If this happens, try taking your narcotics with food. Other medications can often help with nausea.

Updated: 10/21/2011

David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Healht Solutions, Ebix, Inc.


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