Opioids for cancer pain relief: Myths and facts

Opioids are medications that can help manage pain caused by cancer and its treatment by blocking pain signals from injured nerves to the brain. They can help relieve aching, throbbing pain in the muscles (known as nociceptor pain), or numbness in the hands and feet known as neuropathy. We spoke with Dhanalakshmi ("Lakshmi") Koyyalagunta, M.D., about what cancer patients should know about opioids and myths surrounding them. Here’s what she said. What are common opioids prescribed to cancer patients? Some of the most commonly prescribed opioids are tramadol, hydrocodone, morphine, methadone, hydromorphone, oxycodone, tapentadol, oxymorphone and fentanyl patches. They vary in strength and form (pill, elixir, patch or intravenous formulation). When are opioids prescribed for cancer pain? We prescribe opioids in the most necessary situations, such as for patients who have significant pain from their cancer or their treatment. We use opioids cautiously because of the risk of addiction and because they’re more easily tolerated over time, which makes them less effective in managing pain. When we do prescribe opioids, they’re just one part of our pain management approach. What side effects are caused by opioid use? Patients taking opioids may experience constipation, drowsiness, nausea, itching, increased sweating, a weakened immune system and hormonal changes. There’s also the risk of misusing these medications, which worries many patients. Here are three myths I commonly hear from patients regarding these drugs. Myth 1: If I take an opioid for my pain, I’ll get addicted. Certain factors make a patient more likely to misuse opioids. Young patients with a history of anxiety, depression, smoking, drug or alcohol abuse or sexual abuse are...