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How Nurses Can Ease the Pain of the Opioid Crisis

Hospital emergency departments are overrun with patients struggling with opioid addiction. The opioid epidemic affects people all across the United Sates regardless of age, gender, race, income or occupation.

What Are Opioids?

Opioids constitute a class of drugs that include certain prescription pain relievers, heroin and illicitly manufactured fentanyl, which is a synthetic version of the drug.

Why Is There an Opioid Crisis?

In the late 1990s pharmaceutical companies produced prescription opioids that they assured healthcare providers were not addictive. Thus, physicians began to regularly prescribe the medications.

Unfortunately, many patients developed an addiction and sometimes turned to heroin and fentanyl when they could not obtain opioids through legitimate sources. In addition, leftover pharmaceuticals that were not properly disposed of were either stolen for personal use or sold on the street.

What Is Known About the Opioid Crisis?

The opioid crisis continues to worsen. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that more than 115 people die a day from overdosing on opioids. Data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 72,000 deaths in 2017 were due to drug overdose. Among those deaths nearly 30,000 were the result of taking fentanyl and fentanyl analogs (synthetic opioids).

In the study, Rates of Opioid Misuse, Abuse, and Addiction in Chronic Pain: a Systematic Review and Data Synthesis, researchers found that 21 to 29 percent of patients misuse their prescribed opioids. And 8 to 12 percent of those patients become addicted to the drugs.

What Is Being Done to Address the Opioid Epidemic?

The American Association of Colleges of Nursing (AACN) is working with over 40 healthcare provider groups to deal with the opioid epidemic. The educational initiative includes webinars that provide nursing school faculty and students with instruction on changing practices for prescribing opioids.

A series of resources available from the American Nurses Association outlines best practices for breaking the barriers of ineffective pain management. The ANA also informs nurses about proposals centered on ways to handle the opioid epidemic at the national level.

How Can Nurses Help?

Direct contact gives nurses the opportunity to ask patients about drug use. This can be done through straightforward comments or subtle hints expressed in a caring, nonjudgmental way. Nurses can also help by doing the following:

  • Advocate for responsible prescribing practices.
  • Check the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program Database to research a patient’s opioid prescription history.
  • Educate patients about proper disposal of unused medication.
  • Encourage patients with a substance abuse problem to seek treatment.
  • Assist patients with an opioid addiction in finding helpful resources.

What Else Can Nurses Do to Improve the Practice of Pain Management?

Nurses can aid patients in pain relief by incorporating these methods:

  • Apply ice or heat when necessary.
  • Advise patients that the goal is to reduce pain not alleviate it.
  • Employ relaxation techniques to evaluate and manage a patient’s anxiety.
  • Position patients to relieve discomfort.
  • Use elevation and compression for sprains.

Too many parents, families and friends are losing loved ones to opioid addiction. Nurses are an integral part of the fight to reduce the number of overdoses and deaths associated with opioid use. They need to favor and choose medications that do not harm a patient’s well-being. A nurse’s diligence and adherence to best practices for prescribing pharmaceuticals and the application of alternative pain management approaches can make a difference.

Learn more about the USC Aiken online RN to BSN program.


American Association of Critical-Care Nurses: Changing Practices: Pain Management in the Opioid Epidemic

CEUfast: How Nurses Help Fight the Opioid Epidemic

American Nurses Association: Nursing’s Role in Addressing Nation’s Opioid Crisis

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Death Rate Maps and Graphs

National Institute on Drug Abuse: Overdose Death Rates

USA Today: The Opioid Crisis Hits Home. Mine.

NCBI: Rates of Opioid Misuse, Abuse, and Addiction in Chronic Pain: A Systematic Review and Data Synthesis

Lippincott Nursing Center: Using the Art and Science of Nursing to Fight the Opioid Crisis

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