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Acute Pain: Opioids Are Not Always the Answer

What is Acute Pain?

Pain that has been bothering you for less than 3 months.

 Examples of acute pain: hand on lower back, a runner with a sprained ankle, teeth during a dental exam, patient in the operating room with doctocs standing over him.

Opioids are not the first choice for most types of acute pain.

There are major risks from using opioids, including accidental drug poisoning or overdose and dependence or addiction. Side effects from opioids like drowsiness and constipation can keep you from enjoying your favorite activities.

Opioids should only be taken when needed for severe pain. Use the lowest helpful dosage.

Ask your healthcare provider about non-opioid treatments. These can be used successfully to reduce pain and have fewer side effects than opioids.

What are opioids?

  • Hydrocodone (Vicodin®, Lortab®)

  • Oxycodone (Percocet®, Oxycontin®)

  • Hydromorphone (Dilaudid®)

  • Morphine (MS Contin®, Kadian®)

  • Methadone (Dolophine®)

  • Fentanyl (Duragesic®)

Do I need an opioid?

Why Do I Have Pain?

Do I Need an Opioid?

What Else Can I Do for My Pain?

Low back pain

Muscle strain

Herniated disc



Self-care: Ice packs, heating pad or hot bath, walking, stretching, weight loss, in some cases physical therapy.

Medicine: Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines are more effective than opioids. Acute low back pain will improve with time no matter which medicines are used.


Muscle pull

Joint sprain

Broken bone



Self-care: Ice packs, heating pad or hot bath, elevation of injured limb, rest, stretching.

Medicine: Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and acetaminophen are effective. Topical treatments may help the pain as much as oral medicines. Rest, ice/heat, massage, and stretching may help the pain.

Dental pain

Tooth pulled



Root canal


Self-care: Rinse mouth with warm water; use cold compress to outside of cheek if pain is from trauma to a tooth.

Medicine: Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and acetaminophen are effective.


Abdominal surgery


Orthopedic surgery


Self-care: Will depend on the type of surgery.

Medicine: Talk to your healthcare team about the options available for pain after you have surgery. In some cases, acetaminophen or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs may be used. A short course of an opioid may also be used. If opioids are prescribed, they should only be used as needed and in most cases for less than 5 days.

Over-the-counter pain medicines*

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs

    • Ibuprofen (Motrin®, Advil®)

    • Naproxen (Aleve®)

  • Acetaminophen (Tylenol®)

*Caution: You should not take two similar drugs such as aspirin, ibuprofen, or naproxen sodium together. Do not exceed the recommended dosage of a medicine without consulting your healthcare provider.

Author: StayWell Custom Communications
Last Annual Review Date: 6/1/2018
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