Prescribed Opioid Painkillers? Ask These Questions

As the world continues to battle the COVID-19 pandemic, our country is suffering from a worsening opioid crisis. North Carolina has been hit especially hard.

In the first six months of 2022, 2,094 people in North Carolina died from opioid overdoses, a 9 percent increase since the same time period in 2021.

If you’ve seen these statistics or know someone who has struggled with addiction, you might have some concern about taking opioids. These powerful painkillers can be prescribed to manage severe pain after surgery and other medical procedures.

Brooke Chidgey, MD, a UNC Health pain management specialist, understands these concerns and encourages patients to talk to a doctor about them. Ideally, that conversation would take place before the procedure.

It all comes down to planning.

“If you were going on a trip, a detailed map and itinerary would certainly ease your apprehensions,” Dr. Chidgey says.

The same goes for planning for pain after surgery.

Understanding expectations for pain and recovery after surgery is important. She suggests talking to your doctor beforehand, and consider asking these questions:

1. What kind of pain should I expect?

Asking what to expect is a good way to start the conversation.

“If you have realistic expectations, then your outcome often will be better,” Dr. Chidgey says. “Some people are very nervous, thinking the pain will just be horrific. Others think their recovery is going to be no big deal, and then when they do have pain afterwards, it can be harder to tolerate.”

Having the conversation also helps you get on the same page as your doctor.

“In many cases, the surgeon is focused on fixing the problem at hand, while the patient is mostly focused on the potential pain. Make sure you are addressing postoperative pain management with your provider if this is a worry of yours.”

2. What’s the timeline?

Pain after surgery is unavoidable. No matter how seemingly minor the procedure, the reality is that doctors have made an incision, gone in and removed something, or fixed a problem. It’s likely going to hurt. Part of planning for postoperative pain is understanding how the pain will progress over time and when you need to call your doctor for additional help.

“Your pain should be decreasing day after day,” Dr. Chidgey says. “If your pain seems unbearable and is not improving, you should contact your physician. And if your pain increases after a few days, definitely contact your physician, because at that point we are worried about the possibility of a complication such as an infection.”

3. Are there nonopioid options?

Dr. Chidgey advises patients to ask about nonopioid options for pain control.

“A lot of people are surprised by how well ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) or acetaminophen (Tylenol) can work,” Dr. Chidgey says. “Your assumption may be that you will need these very strong painkillers, but other types of drugs can be just as effective, without the added risk. Things like ice can also be really helpful in your recovery.”

Things to Remember About Opioids

When it comes to opioids, it’s important to use them sparingly and stop as soon as you can.

“Just because you were given opioids doesn’t mean you have to take them,” Dr. Chidgey says. “If your pain is mild or moderate, you would be fine with ibuprofen or acetaminophen. Opioids should only be used in instances of severe pain.”

If you use them sparingly, you’re likely to have pills left over. It’s critical to dispose of them properly. Opioid misuse often starts with people taking drugs that were originally prescribed for someone else, she says. This is often a family member, friend or roommate.

Don’t throw them in the trash, where they could be found and used. Don’t flush them down the toilet, since that can contaminate the water supply.

UNC Health Care offers locations where you can drop off unused medication.

MedSafe boxes are located at:

  • UNC Hospitals Hillsborough Outpatient Pharmacy – Lobby Level, Hillsborough Hospital
  • UNC Hospitals Central Chapel Hill Outpatient Pharmacy – Lobby Level, N.C. Cancer Hospital
  • UNC Hospitals Employee Pharmacy – Lobby Level, N.C. Memorial Hospital
  • UNC HospitalsAmbulatory Care Center Outpatient Pharmacy – 3rd floor, Ambulatory Care Center

Learn more about safe and easy medication disposal using the blue MedSafe boxes at UNC Hospitals locations in Chapel Hill and Hillsborough.