The dangers of opioid pain medications

  • Published
  • By Greg Chadwick
  • AFMC Health and Wellness
Pain is the most common reason people seek medical treatment. According to the National Institutes of Health, more than 1 in 10 Americans have chronic pain or pain every day for the preceding three months. When used as directed by your physician, opioid medications safely help control acute pain, such as pain you experience after surgery.

However, there are risks when the medications are used incorrectly. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reported over 17,000 deaths were attributed to overdosing on commonly prescribed opioid medications in 2016, the latest year for which statistics are available. And for every death, more than 30 people are admitted to the emergency room as the result of opioid complications.

“Using opioid pain medications can have some serious side effects,” states Steven Callon, AFMC Drug Demand Reduction Program Manager. “Before you consider taking them, you should discuss with your healthcare provider if the benefits of using prescription opioids are likely to outweigh the risks. With prescription opioid use, it is critical to be a highly informed patient.”

Prescription opioids can be an effective form of pain management but they carry serious risks of addiction and overdose, especially with prolonged use. This question and answer guide explains what opioids are, and how and why they are dangerous.

What are opioid medications?
Prescription opioids are powerful pain-reducing medications often prescribed following surgery or injury, or for painful health conditions such as cancer. Commonly prescribed opioids include: Hydrocodone (Vicodin®), Oxycodone (OxyContin®, Percocet®), Hydromorphone (Dilaudid®) and Oxymorphone (Opana®).

How do opioids affect the brain and body?
Opioid drugs work by binding to opioid receptors in the brain, spinal cord, and other areas of the body. They reduce the sending of pain messages to the brain, and inhibit the transmission of pain signals. They also affect the brain areas that control emotion, which helps diminish the effects of a painful stimulus. For this reason, opioids medications can be addictive.

What are possible side effects of prescription opioids?
• Tolerance- you need to take more of the medication for the same pain relief
• Physical dependence- symptoms of withdrawal when the medication is stopped
• Increased sensitivity to pain
• Constipation
• Nausea, vomiting, and dry mouth
• Sleepiness and dizziness
• Confusion
• Depression
• Itching and sweating

Why are opioids dangerous?
Respiratory depression is the chief hazard associated with prescription opioids. Opioids can slow down breathing, depriving the body of oxygen which can lead to accidental overdose or death. It is very dangerous to combine opioids with other medicines or drugs that cause sleepiness, in particular alcohol, sleeping pills, and anti-anxiety medications because this can increase the respiratory depression caused by opioids. If someone is drinking or taking sleeping pills and takes what would be the usual dose of opioids, he or she may pass out, stop breathing and die.

What treatment options are available to manage pain without prescription opioids?
Talk with your doctor about ways to manage your pain that don’t involve prescription opioids, such as:

  • Physical therapy and exercise
  • Massage therapy
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Meditation and relaxation
  • Acupuncture
  • Chiropractic
  • Yoga

What support services are available for someone struggling with prescription opioids?
If you or someone you know is struggling with opioid pain medications, free confidential consultations and referrals are available for AF civilian employees, members of the military, and their family members. Services are available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Civilian employees may contact the Employee Assistance Program at (800) 222-0364, or visit the EAP website at

Active-duty personnel can contact Military OneSource at (800) 342-9647, or visit

For more information on education materials about the risks of prescription opioid medications, visit or contact your local Civilian Health Promotion Services team. Comprehensive information on the risks and side effects of prescription opioids can be found at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website at