What It Really Means When Your Pain Medication Stops Working

If you're one of the more than 100 million people in the United States who suffer from constant pain, you may have experienced a once-helpful pain medication stop working. Pain medication can provide relief for anything from a throbbing tooth to an incision from major surgery, but is often taken for longer periods of time by those with pain caused by a chronic condition (via WebMD). Most pain medication that's taken is over-the-counter, but narcotic pain medications may also be used to treat certain conditions.

Over-the-counter (OTC) pain medicine can be found in the form of acetaminophen or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAID) such as ibuprofen, naproxen, and aspirin (via Pharmacy Times). While none require a doctor's prescription, all can be deadly if taken incorrectly. When taken in large doses and/or for long periods of time, acetaminophen can cause liver failure and even death. Studies have also associated heavy acetaminophen use with high blood pressure, increased risk of cardiac events, kidney disease, and bleeding of the gastrointestinal tract. Chronic use of NSAIDs can cause bleeding ulcers, high blood pressure, and heart and kidney damage. If OTC pain medications stop working, you may be tempted to just increase the dose, but this is not the answer. A doctor may be able to help you find safer ways to manage chronic pain.

The dangers of the narcotic effect

People that are in acute pain from surgeries or injuries may be prescribed a narcotic. Narcotics can include opioids like morphine, hydrocodone, or oxycodone (via University of Utah Health). These pain medications can work very well for a few days after a surgery such as a cesarean section or dental surgery. But after that, their effectiveness diminishes because of something called the narcotic effect. After four weeks of using an opioid narcotic, people no longer get the same amount of pain relief from the same dose (via HealthPartners).

When you experience an injury, your body sends a pain signal to let you know there's a problem. Opioids work by blocking pain, but then your body tries to make up for it by increasing the number of pain receptors so the signal can be relayed again. The opioids sensitize you to pain, so you actually feel more of it. This can create a vicious cycle leading to a dangerous addiction: you take more narcotics to treat the pain, the narcotics cease to work as your body tries to overcome them, and then you increase the dose again. If you find yourself with chronic pain that can no longer be relieved by medication, consult with your doctor to come up with a new pain management strategy that is right for you.

If you or anyone you know is struggling with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).