Can I Take a Prescription Painkiller If I'm in Recovery?

Pain is something you will experience at some point in your recovery. The question isn’t if it will happen, it’s when. Whether you have a toothache, a broken bone, back problems, headaches or chronic health challenges like arthritis, when pain strikes, you’ll likely wonder whether prescription painkillers are safe for you to take or if they could threaten your sobriety.

A journey of recovery means making a decision that staying sober is a top priority in your life. It’s imperative to stay away from your drug of choice, but you also have to consider how other substances may affect your sobriety and whether they could trigger cravings.

Doctors are faced with unique challenges when trying to prescribe pain relief for someone with substance use disorder. Many doctors will err on the side of caution, so those in recovery may not receive adequate pain management compared to someone who isn’t in recovery. The dual challenge is that relapse can happen if you are in recovery and are prescribed strong painkillers, but inadequate relief from pain can also trigger a relapse.

The Threat of Inadequate Pain Relief

Pain can dramatically reduce your quality of life, particularly when it is something you have to live with on a long-term basis. It’s not harmless; it can harm day-to-day functioning, health, and well-being. Pain can be considered acute (short-term), acute intermittent (such as migraine headaches) or chronic, which is pain that persists over a long period of time, that may or may not have a known cause.

Pain can adversely affect your health, triggering the stress response and leading to exhaustion. Continued pain can lead to depression, anxiety, and an inability to sleep, which may lead to more pain. When there is no relief from physical pain for days or weeks on end, you may find that you begin to be preoccupied with turning to substances you know can provide relief, which could be alcohol, street drugs, or prescription drugs obtained illegally.

How Your Doctor Will Select a Pain Medication

If you have intense pain, it’s important to be honest with your doctor and yourself about the intensity of your pain and why you are looking for prescription painkillers. Medical professionals will carefully consider your personal and family history of addiction before prescribing medication that is known to be habit-forming. They will also consider other medication that you may be taking or whether you have a history of mental illness.

The type of pain you are experiencing will also be considered. Pain may be able to be treated with over-the-counter medication. If this doesn’t work, your doctor will probably prescribe other types of non-addictive medication before recommending narcotic painkillers.

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Following Doctors’ Orders

If your pain is acute, such as sudden pain from an accident or broken bone, your doctor may prescribe opioids or other strong painkillers for a few days. If these medications are taken exactly as prescribed by your doctor, you should be able to use them on a short-term basis for pain relief.

Managing long-term pain can be more challenging, but it can be done. Your doctor will carefully evaluate the severity of your pain. If addictive medications are prescribed, your doctor should monitor you frequently. He or she may want to work closely with addiction professionals on your treatment plan.

Other tips for following doctor’s orders include:

  • Use just one doctor, so that he or she has a thorough understanding of all your health challenges, including the fact that you are in recovery.
  • Take medication as prescribed in exactly the dosage prescribed and at set times each day you are on them.
  • Stay close to other people in recovery, and be honest with those who are offering you support, such as your sponsor or therapist.

Take Responsibility for Your Sobriety

Prescription painkillers are mind-altering substances, so if you have to take them for a period of time, do so with caution. At the same time, put extra energy into being mindful about your recovery. You may want to attend more meetings than usual and have honest conversations with your sponsor or therapist about the challenges you are facing with physical pain and the treatment for prescription painkillers.

Keep in mind that failure to be honest with your doctor about your history of misusing substances can put you at high risk of relapse. If you are completely honest with your doctor and careful to take medications as prescribed, and only for the purpose they were prescribed for, you may be able to take a prescription painkiller even though you are in recovery.