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Pain Control: Support for People with Cancer

  • Updated: 05/16/2014

Medicine Tolerance and Addiction

When treating cancer pain, addiction is rarely a problem.

Addiction is when people can't control their seeking or craving for something. They continue to take medicine, or perform a certain action, even when it causes them harm. Often people take medicines when they don't have pain. They take it for psychological reasons, not physical. But people with cancer need strong medicine to help control their pain. Yet some people are so afraid of becoming addicted to pain medicine that they won't take it. Family members may also worry that their loved ones will get addicted to pain medicine. Therefore, they sometimes encourage loved ones to "hold off" between doses But even if they mean well, it's best to take your medicine as prescribed.

People in pain get the most relief when they take their medicines on schedule. And don't be afraid to ask for larger doses if you need them. As mentioned in Opioids - for moderate to severe pain, developing a tolerance to pain medicine is common. But taking cancer pain medicine is not likely to cause addiction. If you're not a drug addict, you won't become one. Even if you have had an addiction problem before, you still deserve good pain management. Talk with your doctor or nurse about your concerns.

"If you're worried about addiction, ask yourself one question. If you didn't have this pain, would you want this medicine? The answer is usually no." - Robin

Tolerance to pain medicine sometimes happens.

Some people think that they have to save stronger medicines for later. They're afraid that their bodies will get used to the medicine and that it won't work anymore. But medicine doesn't stop working - it just doesn't work as well as it once did. As you keep taking a medicine over time, you may need a change in your pain control plan to get the same amount of pain relief.

This is called tolerance. Tolerance is a common issue in cancer pain treatment.

Medicine tolerance is not the same as addiction.

As mentioned, medicine tolerance happens when your body gets used to the medicine you're taking. The result is that the dose no longer works as well. Each person's body is different. Many people don't develop a tolerance to opioids. But if tolerance happens to you, don't worry.

Under your doctor's care, you can:

  • Increase your dose
  • Add a new kind of medicine
  • Change the kind of medicine that you're taking for pain

The goal is to relieve your pain. Increasing the dose to overcome tolerance does not lead to addiction.

Taking pain medicine will not cause you to "get high."

Most people do not "get high" or lose control when they take cancer pain medicines as prescribed by the doctor. Some pain medicines can cause you to feel sleepy when you first take them This feeling usually goes away within a few days. On occasion, people get dizzy or feel confused when they take pain medicines. Tell your doctor or nurse if this happens to you. Changing your dose or type of medicine can usually solve this problem.