The basics

Common opioids include pain medications such as hydrocodone (Vicodin) and oxycodone (Percocet, Oxycontin). Some people become addicted to opioids after taking the medications for pain and then have trouble discontinuing the medications. In some cases, people become addicted to opioids and then, if they’re unable to obtain a prescription legally, buy the drugs illegally or take street drugs like heroin. 

About 90 percent of the entire world supply of these drugs is consumed by people in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), opioids, including prescription opioids and heroin, killed more than 33,000 people in 2015, more than any other year on record. Nearly half of all opioid overdose deaths involved a prescription opioid.

These drugs, which are usually given for acute pain after surgery or dental work, should be discontinued as soon as the pain is under control. Patients with chronic pain or cancer sometimes take them for prolonged periods of time. People with chronic pain may have trouble doing activities of daily living like bathing, eating or dressing. This can cause frustration and the search for anything that might alleviate the pain.  

In general, if there is an alternative medication for pain that helps, avoid starting opioids. Patients are encouraged to take medications like ibuprofen (Motrin), naproxen (Naprosyn, Aleve) or acetaminophen (Tylenol). For muscle or joint pain, physical therapy, heat or cold pads, or topical treatments like BenGay may help.

Side effects and interactions

Opioids are strong pain relievers, but they may also cause significant side effects, such as drowsiness, trouble concentrating, nausea, and constipation. They should not be mixed with other drugs that cause sleepiness, such as tranquilizers, and should not be taken with alcohol. People with a history of any type of substance-use disorder should use these drugs with extreme caution.


Addiction is a complex phenomenon with components of physical and behavioral symptoms. One of the signs of addiction is using more of these medications on a daily basis than were prescribed. Physical withdrawal if the medication is not available is a sign of drug dependence. Symptoms can be shaking, sweating, insomnia, or nausea with vomiting. You or a family member may be addicted if you can’t seem to control the urge to take the drug. 

These medications can be effective for short- or long-term use, but must be used with caution and awareness. Please talk to your health care provider if you have concerns.

Both Massachusetts and Rhode Island have implemented programs to decrease the use of these drugs. The programs restrict the amount of medication that can be dispensed to a patient for a first prescription and maintain a registry that prescribers must check to see if another provider has prescribed the medication.


In addition to your primary care provider, these resources can help if you’re concerned about addiction:

Narcotics Anonymous


Partnership for a Drug-Free America


Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration