Opiates and opioid medications are often prescribed to patients with chronic pain or as they recover from surgery or major injury. However, there are indicators that some individuals have or may develop a tolerance to opiate drugs. To better understand it is important to know the signs of opiate tolerance and be proactive about alternative treatments.

Here are the two primary signs of opiate tolerance:

  1. A need to take more medication to achieve the same level of relief. The reason opiates work with our body chemistry is that we have built-in opiate receptors in our system. Before tolerance is built up, opiates are used by these receptors to induce a feeling of relief and an absence of pain in the body. However, they merely mask the symptoms while they provide relief. As individuals continue to take opiate medications, these receptors build up a natural tolerance requiring higher or more frequent doses to achieve the same level of pain relief.
  2. Learning to function in spite of increased doses of medication. The most common example of learned tolerance is that of the functioning alcoholic. An individual can adapt their behavior to function in a seemingly normal fashion throughout their daily lives. This happens while they are consuming a much higher dose of medications than are prescribed for the condition. There is a very thin line between tolerance and addiction which doctors are working hard to help their patients not cross.

Overall, however, tolerance is poorly understood and, since it is such a complex process, it requires proactive care and monitoring to reduce risk. 

Monitoring patients with acute or chronic pain who are being treated with opiate medications is essential for lowering the risk of developing dependency. Opiate tolerance is a serious concern among doctors and pain management specialists and it is continuing to be researched.

Have you seen signs of opiate tolerance in your treatment? 

Image by Tanya Little via Flickr

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