Twenty some odd years ago, the American Academy of Pain Medicine and the American Pain Society, two large pain-related professional organizations, teamed up to agree upon what it means to have both chronic pain and be addicted to opioid pain medications at the same time.1 They did it because addiction to opioid medications when patients are prescribed them for legitimate health reasons seems different than addiction to other substances like alcohol, cannabis, cocaine, or even illegally obtained opioid medications when not used for pain. The difference involves the phenomena of tolerance, physical dependence, and withdrawal, which in part serve as criteria for the diagnosis of addiction when it comes to all other substances.
Opioid, or narcotic, pain medications are beneficial in a number of ways. Terminal cancer patients, for instance, benefit from their use. The short-term use of opioid pain medications is beneficial, especially while recovering from an acute injury or a surgery. However, the long-term use of opioid medications for chronic, noncancer, pain remains controversial. While a number of issues contribute to this controversy, the main reason for the controversy is addiction. Opioid pain medications are addictive.
This controversy makes opioid pain medications a highly sensitive issue for patients who take them.