Nurses can help avoid negative effects of opioids while ensuring patient pain is managed.
- Pain management can be complicated by individual patients’ previous pain experiences, genetics, ability to cope with trauma, underlying mental health conditions, and pain relief expectations.
- Nurses play an important role in ensuring patients receive the most appropriate treatment for their acute or chronic pain.
- Opioid use disorder can make pain management challenging.
Pain management can be complicated by a number of factors, including individual patient response to pain, which can be affected by previous experiences, genetics, the ability to cope with trauma, underlying mental health conditions, and expectations about pain relief. To ensure patients receive appropriate acute and chronic pain management, nurses must consider individual response and be knowledgeable about the most appropriate treatment options. In addition, they should be familiar with how to treat pain in patients with opioid use disorder (OUD).
How opioids work
Opioids provide pain relief via the endogenous opioid system, where they act as agonists at mu receptor sites. They fully “unlock” the receptors and produce opioid’s euphoric effect (as a result of dopamine release) as well as pain relief.
Mu-opioid receptors are concentrated in the central nervous system’s pain-and-reward network, the area of the brain that regulates emotions such as anxiety, and the area of the brainstem that regulates breathing. Activating receptors in the brainstem can slow breathing, potentially to the point of respiratory depression—or cessation in the case of overdose—leading to death. In addition, some patients experience opioid-induced hyperalgesia; rather than providing pain relief, opioids cause the patient to become more sensitive to pain.
Opioids in acute pain
Acute pain results from tissue damage that causes a noxious response to send signals to the brain to protect the area from further damage. Using immediate-release opioids for short-term pain management stops the pain signal after the trauma has dissipated and allows the tissue to heal. Nonopioid medications such as acetaminophen or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs can augment opioids; for some patients, they also can be effective when used alone. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Harbaugh and Suwanabol found that more than 75% of patients with acute pain had relief with acetaminophen or ketorolac. The remainder of the patients responded to rescue opioids used once or twice.
Patient education, discussing expectations, and frequent re-evaluation of comfort will help reassure the patient of the care team’s intent to manage the pain. These efforts are crucial to help reduce possible negative effects from overuse of opioids, such as physiologic dependence (See Opioids and physiologic dependence.)
A patient’s response to opioids may be altered by previous exposure to them. For example, a patient with a history of opioid use for chronic pain may not respond as robustly to routine doses of opioids as someone who’s opioid naïve.
Opioids in chronic pain
Chronic pain, which is defined as persisting longer than 3 to 6 months and exceeding the expected tissue healing time frame, negatively impacts mood, general activity, and quality of life. (See Pain chronification.) In 2016, according to the CDC and Poulin and colleagues, approximately 20% (about 50 million) of Americans suffered from chronic pain and 8% (about 20 million) experienced disabling chronic pain.
Chronic pain may prevent a person from using previous support resources such as social outings, taking part in physical activity such as walking with friends, or engaging in spiritual activities. Opioids to treat chronic pain should allow individuals to return to activities that give life meaning. Previously, long-term opioids, even at high doses, were considered safe for treating chronic pain, and pain relief was associated with quality care. However, the consequences of opioid use for treating long-term pain have lead to a re-evaluation of this perspective.
Although many people may safely take opioids long-term, chronic opioid therapy poses too many risks and side effects to be considered as a primary chronic pain treatment. Beyond the danger of overdose, opiates possess many other risks, including opioid dependency and tolerance, higher rate of falls and fractures in older adults, neonatal abstinence syndrome in newborns, decreased testosterone in men, and immune dysfunction. Risks and benefits should be assessed before prescribing opioids.
Research about the effectiveness of long-term opioid use for chronic, non-cancer pain treatment is limited, but anecdotal evidence shows that some patients function well with long-term opioid maintenance. However, changes in pain treatment philosophies may require treatment plan re-evaluation.
Even after re-evaluation, though, some patients may choose to continue receiving opioid treatment. In that case, providers must clearly identify the benefit of the patient’s current medication and minimize its risk. For example, doses may be adjusted to provide just enough relief for the patient to participate in normal activities. Another option is changing from daily opioid use to intermittent use or when pain is severe. These dosage changes can be accompanied by nonpharmacologic treatment.
Opioid use disorder
According to the CDC and Poulin and colleagues, opioid use places about 8% of the population at risk of developing OUD. In addition to genetics, external factors such as poverty, trauma (for example, intimate partner violence), mental health disorders (for example, anxiety and depression), and poor sleep increase OUD risk.
Opioid medications are intended to relieve pain so that patients can resume engagement in life, but for some patients with chronic pain, opioids have the opposite effect because of their actions on the central nervous system. Chronic pain pathways decrease serotonin and endorphins in the central nervous system. Opioids, which are exogenous endorphins, extinguish the brain’s need to produce them. When the individual stops using an opioid, natural endorphin production may take some time (weeks to months) to resume, delaying engagement in life.
Addiction is defined by established criteria as outlined in the Diagnostic Statistical Manual – Fifth edition (DMS-5). The more criteria that are met, the more severe the diagnosis. Individuals with an addiction frequently behave as if nothing matters as much as getting more of the substance. Unconscious triggers may derail the best plans to quit, and the cravings and rewards of the drug are powerful and difficult to ignore.
Opioid addiction may develop slowly. Initially, the person may feel in control of the amount of medication they’re taking as well as how often and for how long. However, as the brain adapts to having the drug on board, neurochemistry changes so the individual must have the substance to feel “normal.” The main criteria for all addictions can be remembered as the 4 Cs: Compulsive use, Cravings, loss of Control, and Consequences of use.
Recovery from OUD must go beyond withdrawal and cessation because relapse may result in overdose and death. Medications for opioid use disorder (MOUD) is best practice for treating OUD. Medications, such as methadone and buprenorphine, can decrease cravings and block the rewarding aspects of opioids. MOUD can help patients with OUD stabilize their lives and protect them from accidental overdose. Medications used to treat OUD can decrease the risk of accidental overdose and reduce self-injection of opioids, which may result in infectious disease (for example, HIV and hepatitis C) transmission. (See Pain and addiction terminology.)
OUD and acute pain
A common misperception of patients receiving MOUD is that the medications they’re taking will also manage acute pain. However, the patient will have developed a tolerance to the analgesic effects of the medication and will require either a different dosing strategy or a different analgesic to obtain pain relief. The acute-care team should consult the pharmacist to determine the best options. For instance, a patient receiving long-acting naltrexone may need either regional anesthesia or nonopioid medication for pain relief. If an opioid is required to manage pain, the patient may be prescribed larger-than-normal doses of a rapid-acting opioid. These higher doses will increase the risk for respiratory depression, so the patient should be closely monitored in the hospital by professionals trained in the use of anesthetic drugs.
Patients in acute pain who have a history of OUD but are not receiving MOUD may require an opioid for a limited time. If the patient must go home with opioids for pain management, a plan to avoid relapse should be developed, including having someone else manage and dispense the medication.
Other pain relief options include nonopioid pharmacologic interventions (such as acetaminophen or ketorolac), elevation of an injured extremity, transcutaneous electrical nerve simulation, and cold packs. Some patients may benefit from physical therapy, relaxation and distraction, bioelectric therapy, or nerve blocks. Pain management also should include establishing treatment goals and expectations as well as the patient’s role in recovery.
The American Nurses Association’s 2018 position statement, “The ethical responsibility to manage pain and the suffering it causes,” states that nurses have “an ethical responsibility to relieve pain and the suffering it causes.” The statement also notes that pain management should be “informed by evidence.” Evidence has shown that opioids are too often overprescribed and misused; nurses can play a key role in their appropriate use in both acute and chronic pain.
In patients with acute pain, nurses can monitor for adverse effects and for inappropriate prescriptions. Advocating for nonpharmacologic interventions will further promote optimal pain management.
Nurses also can support and encourage patients as they reduce opioid use for chronic pain. The process begins with patient participation in the decision to adjust treatment and trust in the care team. Next, the team must create a caring atmosphere and provide education to help patients understand the underlying mechanisms of their illness and reassure them that the treatment plan is dynamic and flexible.
Incorporating evidence-based tools, such as the Brief Pain Inventory or the PEG (pain on average, pain interference in enjoyment of life, and pain interference on general activities) pain screening tool to measure a patient’s general and emotional functionality related to participation in life, is as important as measuring the patient’s perception of pain level. Treatment goals should focus on helping the patient return to participating in usual life activities. Inactivity secondary to pain and opioid sedation can lead to debilitation. Nurses can encourage muscle strengthening through gentle stretching and toning to support improved physical function. Even patients who are chair bound can be encouraged to work on muscle strengthening while sitting.
Active patient participation in chronic pain management is critical for success. Evidence-based psychological treatment—such as cognitive behavioral therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, and mindfulness—can support patients with chronic pain and serve as adjuncts or alternatives to opioids.
Patients receiving opioids to treat chronic pain require nursing care to maximize pain management and reduce opioid addiction and overdose risk. The opioid epidemic has changed how pain is managed. Honest education about opioids can help patients better understand the patient’s role in recovery. Reduced long-term opioid treatment must be balanced and individualized to ensure patients can participate in normal activities. As patient advocates, nurses should track and monitor overall patient function and communicate with the team about adjusting the treatment plan as needed.
The authors work at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Susanne Astrab Fogger is a professor in the school of nursing. Gina Dobbs is a primary care clinician in the UAB Health System.
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