- Cancer Information
- Managing side effects
- Pain and cancer
- Managing pain with medicines
- Common questions about opioids
Common questions about opioids
Most people have questions about taking opioid medicines. Some common questions that may come up are answered below. Your doctor, nurse practitioner or nurse can also discuss any concerns you have. Learn more if you have been prescribed opioids for chronic pain.
If you are caring for someone with cancer pain, you may have some other specific questions about opioids.
Will I become addicted to opioids?
One reason that some people don’t use opioids is because they worry about becoming addicted to opioids.
When people take morphine or other opioids to relieve acute pain or for palliative care, they may experience withdrawal symptoms when they stop taking a drug, but this is not addiction. A person with a drug addiction problem takes drugs to fulfil physical or emotional needs, despite the drugs causing harm.
Some people who take opioids long term for pain relief are at risk of becoming addicted. The risk is higher for people who have a history of misusing opioids or other medicines before their cancer diagnosis. People who use opioids to manage chronic pain over a long period of time are also at risk of becoming addicted. Talk to your doctor if you are concerned about drug dependence.
Will I need to have injections?
Not usually. Strong pain medicines are usually given by mouth as either a liquid or tablet, and work just as well given this way as injection. If you’re vomiting, opioids can be given as a suppository inserted into the bottom, by a small injection under the skin (subcutaneously), through a skin patch or in sublingual tablet form. Learn more about the different ways medicines are taken.
Opioids can also be injected into a vein for short-term pain relief, such as after surgery. This is called intravenous opioid treatment, and it is given in hospital.
If I start opioids now, will they still work well later?
Some people try to avoid taking pain medicine until the pain is severe, thinking it is better to hold out for as long as possible so the medicine works better later. However, this may change the way the central nervous system processes the pain, causing people to experience pain long after the cause of the pain is gone.
It is better to take medicine as prescribed, rather than just at the time you feel the pain.
If I’m given opioids, does that mean the cancer is advanced?
People with cancer at any stage can develop severe pain that needs to be managed with strong opioids, such as morphine. Opioids are also commonly prescribed after surgery.
Being prescribed opioids doesn’t mean you will always need to take them. If your pain improves, you may be able to take a milder pain medicine or try other ways to manage the pain, or you may be able to stop taking strong pain medicines.
What if I get breakthrough pain?
While it’s relatively common for people diagnosed with cancer to get breakthrough pain, this sudden flare-up of pain can be distressing.
You might get breakthrough pain even though you’re taking regular doses of medicine. The pain may happen on occasion or as often as several times a day. This breakthrough pain may last only a few seconds, several minutes or hours.
Causes of breakthrough pain may vary. It can occur if you have been more active than usual or have strained yourself. Other causes of breakthrough pain include anxiety, or illnesses such as a cold or urinary tract infection. Sometimes there seems to be no reason for the extra pain.
Talk to your treatment team about how to manage breakthrough pain. They may prescribe an extra, or top-up, dose of a short-acting (immediate release) opioid to treat the breakthrough pain. The dose works fairly quickly, in about 30 minutes.
It is helpful to make a note of when the pain starts, what causes it and how many extra doses you need. This information will help your doctor better understand your pain experience. If you find your pain increases with some activities, taking an extra dose of medicine beforehand may help.
Will my body get used to the opioids?
Some people with cancer stop getting pain relief from their usual opioid dose if they use it for a long time. This is known as tolerance. This means that the body has become used to the dose and your doctor will need to increase the dose or give you a different opioid to achieve the same level of pain control. You can develop tolerance without being addicted.
Can I drive while using opioids?
All drugs that affect the central nervous system can affect the skills needed for driving such as reaction times, alertness and decision-making. Doctors have a duty to advise patients not to drive if they are at risk of causing an accident that may harm themselves or others. While taking opioids, particularly during the first days of treatment, you may feel drowsy and find it hard to concentrate, so driving is not recommended.
Before you drive, ask your doctor for advice and consider the following:
- Don’t drive if you’re tired, you’ve been drinking alcohol, you’re taking other medicine that makes you sleepy, or road conditions are bad.
- It is against the law to drive if your ability to drive safely is influenced by a drug. Also, if you have a car accident while under the influence of a drug, your insurance company may not pay out a claim.
- Once the dose is stabilised, take care driving. Keep in mind that changes in dose or stopping opioids suddenly can affect driving, as can using breakthrough pain medicine.
- Special rules and restrictions about driving apply to people with brain tumours, including secondary brain cancer, or people who have had seizures.
- For more information, talk to your doctor or download the publication, Assessing Fitness to Drive for commercial and private vehicle drivers, from austroads.com.au.
Can I stop taking opioids at any time?
Stopping opioids suddenly can cause side effects. You should only reduce your dose or stop taking opioids after talking with your health care team.
They will develop a withdrawal plan (called a taper) to gradually reduce the amount of medicine you take. It may take a few weeks to safely reduce the dose.
Podcast: Managing Cancer Pain
Dr Tim Hucker, Pain Medicine Specialist, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Dr Keiron Bradley, Palliative Care Consultant, Bethesda Health Care, WA; A/Prof Anne Burke, Co-Director Psychology, Central Adelaide Local Health Network, President, Australian Pain Society, Statewide Chronic Pain Clinical Network, SA, School of Psychology, The University of Adelaide, SA; Tumelo Dube, Accredited Pain Physiotherapist, Michael J Cousins Pain Management and Research Centre, Royal North Shore Hospital, NSW; Prof Paul Glare, Chair in Pain Medicine, Palliative Medicine Specialist, Pain Management Research Institute, The University of Sydney, NSW; Andrew Greig, Consumer; Annette Lindley, Consumer; Prof Melanie Lovell, Palliative Care Specialist HammondCare, Sydney Medical School and The University of Technology Sydney, NSW; Caitriona Nienaber, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA; Melanie Proper, Pain Management Specialist Nurse Practitioner, Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, QLD; Dr Alison White, Palliative Medicine Specialist and Director of Hospice and Palliative Care Services, St John of God Health Care, WA.
View the Cancer Council NSW editorial policy.
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