Doctor and patient discussing current health examination while sitting in clinic.

Overcoming Opioid Dependence

Written by Nicole Zenk, CNP  Family Medicine

There are two ways to quit a habit or addiction – whether from caffeine, smoking, sugar, screen time and social media, etc. One way is to quit cold turkey and work through replacing the activity with different and better habits from day one. This method can and does work for some people. The majority of us, however, find tapering to have longer-lasting and more successful results.

When the habit is an addiction to medication, specifically opioid medication, tapering is the preferred method for quitting. Tapering means working with your healthcare provider to slowly lower your dose until you stop taking medicine altogether. It may sound scary, but rest assured, tapering can reduce side effects, lessen pain, and improve your life overall.

Why Taper Opioid Medicine?

Opioids are for short-term pain – after surgery or injury. They are not as helpful for chronic pain. In addition, the severe risks and side effects are more significant than the benefits. Some side effects include a decrease in your breathing, which can cause sudden death, and developing a tolerance and needing to take more. This causes an addiction and physical dependence, which means you will have withdrawal symptoms. Other risks include becoming more sensitive to pain over time and increasing the risk of depression, accidents, and constipation. Physical dependence can also affect your hormones and, in women, harm an unborn child if you become pregnant. Even if you don’t stop completely, lowering your dose has been shown to reduce your risks. The only way to have no risk is to stop taking opioids.

What do you have to gain from tapering your opioid dose? Your everyday life may also improve. People who taper their opioid dose report having more energy for work and what they enjoy, clearer thinking, better relationships with family and friends, and less constipation.

How Does Tapering Work?

Know that when you taper off opioid medicine, you are not doing this alone. You work with a medical professional and make a tapering plan to lower your dose over time based on your specific, individual needs. If you have any withdrawal symptoms, your provider will help you manage them. With many people, tapering is done slowly enough, making withdrawal symptoms minor and short-term.

A significant part of the tapering plan is learning to manage your pain in other ways. It requires dedication; however, what you learn will prove beneficial in the long run. Pain experts agree these are some of the things that work best to manage chronic pain:

It won’t be easy, but it will be worth it. Throughout the tapering process, staying in close contact with your doctor or nurse practitioner is essential. Be honest about your symptoms, fears, and concerns. They will support you during the process to help make finding the best non-opioid treatment that works for you easier and more comfortable.