Talking to Your Doctor About Pain
Acute & Chronic Pain
Acute pain usually begins suddenly and is the result of a clearly defined cause, such as an injury or surgery. Acute pain can be mild and last a moment, or severe and last for weeks or months. Chronic pain is usually associated with an underlying cause (such as arthritis or cancer) that lasts longer than six months and can continue after the injury or illness that caused the pain has gone away.
Speak to Your Doctor
If you experience an injury, accident, surgery, or other medical condition, the National Safety Council (NSC) recommends getting answers to these four questions when speaking with your doctor about managing your pain (PDF in English and Spanish):
- Am I being given an opioid?
- If so, is there a non-addictive option? Ask for a different option if there is one. There are other non-opioid pain relievers. Studies show that the most effective medications for acute pain are not opioids, but ibuprofen and acetaminophen taken together. Tell your doctor or dentist that you want the best treatment for acute pain (200 milligrams of ibuprofen and 500 milligrams of acetaminophen taken together is what is recommended.
- If opioids are needed, is a short-term prescription possible? Ask your doctor to limit the dose and length of time you take the opioid medication. Ask if a 3-day prescription is right for you.
- Do I have any medical conditions, mental health issues or a family history that could increase my risk? Be very clear and honest with your doctor about your medical history. There is no way to determine who will become addicted to a prescription painkiller, however, people with a history of substance abuse including alcohol or other drugs, or those who have depression and anxiety, are at greater risk. Tell your doctor about all other medications and drugs you take and about how much alcohol you drink.
You can also request an Opioid Warn-Me label from NSC. A Warn-Me Label on an insurance card or prescription card is a sign to doctors and pharmacists that you want answers to those four questions.
What to Expect from Your Doctor
The following is what you should expect from your doctor if considering opioids (based on guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention):
- In most cases, acute pain is not severe enough to require opioids for more than three days. You should expect your doctor to prescribe the lowest effective dose, for the shortest period needed, when treating acute pain.
- Avoid or delay prescribing opioids for chronic pain. Most of the time, opioids are not safe or effective for chronic pain that is not related to cancer or cancer treatments. Your doctor should help you consider other therapies or medications.
- Work with you to create treatment goals based on how much pain relief you need in order to improve your ability to function.
- Schedule regular check-ups while taking opioids with a follow-up appointment one-to-four-weeks after you start opioid therapy. If you continue taking opioids, you will need to see your doctor frequently, either with every prescription refill or every three months. This may include urine tests.
- Lessen withdrawal when you stop taking opioids. Your doctor should help you slowly and safely taper off opioids to avoid severe side effects.