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Health Answers

Should I be worried about painkiller addiction after my surgery?

Q. Should I be worried about painkiller addiction after my surgery?

A. With growing concerns about an epidemic of prescription painkiller addiction, many people are wary of taking these drugs after surgery or for a medical condition. Ethan Bryson, an anesthesiologist at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, says that it’s important to put the issue in context. For most people, he says, “the risk of addiction is very low if you’re taking the drugs as prescribed.” Even if you become physically dependent on a medication and experience some withdrawal symptoms after taking it, it doesn’t mean you’re addicted. “Addiction is the compulsive use of the drugs despite the negative consequences,” he says.

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If you have a personal history of addiction, be straightforward with your clinicians. Bryson says there are strategies for treating patients with known addictions, including relying more on non-addictive pain medications or local or regional anesthesia for pain relief. To avoid taking more pills than prescribed, he says, “a simple solution is to have a trusted friend or family member who is aware of your concerns act as your pharmacy.” Have them hide your medications and give you only the prescribed dose — then discard or return any leftovers to a pharmacy. Never keep or share leftover painkillers; it’s a primary way that addictions start.

Pain relief is important after surgery, and not just for comfort — it can help you recover faster and prevent complications by keeping you mobile. “Toughing it out can be dangerous,” Bryson says.

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