Access to the PPM Journal and newsletters is FREE for clinicians.
11 Articles in Volume 13, Issue #2
Spinal Cord Stimulation: Fundamentals
Assessment of Psychological Screeners for Spinal Cord Stimulation Success
Educating Patients About Pain Medications
Central Sensitization: Common Etiology In Somatoform Disorders
Demystifying Pain Pathways
Vibroacoustic Harp Therapy in Pain Management
Erythrocyte Sedimentation Rate and C-Reactive Protein: Old But Useful Biomarkers for Pain Treatment
Editor's Memo: Inflammatory Disease—Time to Refine Our Diagnoses
Ask the Expert: Pain Persists in Spite of High-dose Opioids
Ask the Expert: Rectally Administered Morphine
Letters to the Editor: Mistaken Hormone, Lab Values

Educating Patients About Pain Medications

It is the clinician’s job to properly introduce the patient to the medication by sharing the drug’s story with them.

Former US Surgeon General C. Everett Koop, MD, famously said, "Drugs don't work in patients who don't take them." Medications also don't work in, and can even harm, patients who don't take them as intended. In a meta-analysis of research studying medication adherence and treatment outcomes, nonadherence accounted for 33% of hospital admissions for adverse drug events.1 Nonadherence to an analgesic regimen could result in untreated pain or adverse events, which can cause decreased productivity and increased employee absences. Poor provider– patient communication has been identified as a barrier to adherence.

In 1999, the Institute of Medicine urged clinicians to counsel patients on prescribed medications.2,3 Every patient has a story, and so does every drug. After you know the patient's pain story and decide a medication should be part of their treatment plan, it's your job to properly introduce the patient to the medication by sharing the drug's story with the patient. This includes nonprescription and prescription analgesics, non-opioids and opioids, and topical and systemic analgesics (Table 1). An easy way to cover all of the important pieces of information a patient needs is by remembering the elements of any story: Who, What, Why, When, How, and Where (Figure 1).

Patients must be educated regarding information they will find on the medication label as well as information that won't be on the label. First and foremost, a patient needs to know "who," which, for a medication, is the brand and/or generic name. If the patient is prescribed or dispensed a generic version of their medication, often they will be more familiar with the drug's brand name due to direct-to-consumer advertising. Often, the brand name is also easier to pronounce and remember, but phonetic spelling on a patient handout can help a patient remember the generic name (eg, MOR-feen). In the case of acetaminophen, it is important to explain that "acetaminophen," "APAP," "paracetamol," and "Tylenol" are all the same medication so patients know to avoid an overdose situation.

The "what" in a medication's story includes the dosage form and strength prescribed, as well as what the patient can expect from the drug in terms of therapeutic and adverse effects. For an opioid prescription, the patient needs to know they may experience drowsiness and/ or nausea initially, and constipation for the duration of therapy. It would be prudent to explain how to prevent constipation, as well as explain about any medications they will be taking to manage this adverse effect. Therapeutic effects should be explained in terms of reduction in pain scores, as recorded in pain diaries, and improvement in daily functioning. These will vary based on the patient's story. Therapeutic goals go hand in hand with "why" you are giving the patient this particular drug.

Of course, a prescription label will contain your directions for when and how to take the medication. However, going over this information with the patient will reinforce it and often reveal interacting foods or drugs the patient might be taking. In addition, educating the patient on when and how can uncover misunderstandings the patient might have. The patient also needs to know when to follow up with you to monitor the efficacy and safety of their regimen. Part of "how" includes how to take or use the medication including swallowing a tablet or capsule whole versus allowed dosage formulation manipulation (crushing, chewing, etc), application of a transdermal patch, or application of a topical analgesic.

Finally, where is often overlooked, but incredibly important. Drug diversion is an increasing problem; patients must be advised that the medication cabinet isn't the best place for long-term medication stability or short-term security of their medication. Patients on opioid medications are well advised to store their medication as they would their money; in other words, NOT on the kitchen table. In addition to storage, knowledge of proper disposal is critical. Improper disposal of fentanyl patches has resulted in serious illness and death in children who came in contact with them.4 Patients should be advised to fold fentanyl patches in half so the sticky sides meet, and flush them down the toilet. In fact, if your local authorities do not have a take-back prescription drug program, the FDA recommends flushing all controlled substances.5

Another good way to remember all the pieces of information a patient needs to know about their medications is to use the guide provided by the National Council on Patient Information and Education (Table 2). The table features "Questions to Ask About Prescription Medications," and uses extended-release morphine tablets as an example.6

Fears, Myths, and Misconceptions

While providing factual information about analgesics as described above is critically important in achieving therapeutic success, it is equally important to explore patients' health care beliefs and fears or thoughts about analgesics. Another important factor is how the prescriber introduces the use of analgesics to the patient. Reid et al reported that cancer patients found opioid therapy to be a more acceptable option to manage their pain when health care providers displayed confidence in opioid therapy, and adverse effects were well managed.7

Fitzcharles and colleagues evaluated the pain experience of patients with rheumatoid arthritis being managed in a specialty rheumatology practice, specifically evaluating patients' satisfaction with pain control and determining barriers that may affect pain management.8 More than half of the 60 patients surveyed reported three or more barriers to effective pain management. Eighty percent were concerned about analgesic adverse effects, 63% had concerns about taking too many pills, 57% were concerned about drug interactions, 35% had fears of addiction, and 27% felt that analgesic therapy may mask or hide their disease.

More than a decade ago, Ward et al explored patients' concerns about reporting pain and using pain medications, referring to these concerns as "patient-related barriers to pain management."9 After reviewing the literature and conducting a series of studies, the authors summarized into eight categories patients' concerns that prevent accurate reporting of pain and reluctance to take medications:

  • Fear of addiction
  • Concern about drug tolerance
  • Belief that side effects from analgesics are even more bothersome than pain
  • Fatalism about the possibility of achieving good pain control
  • Belief that "good" patients do not complain about pain
  • Fear of distracting a physician from treating the disease
  • Belief that pain signifies diseaseprogression
  • Fear of injections9

Clearly, patients often have strong opinions about analgesic therapy, and opioids in particular. It seems reasonable for health care practitioners to acknowledge the elephant in the room and ask patients, "Do you have any fears or concerns about using medications to treat your pain?" Patients are often relieved to be asked this question and are happy to share their fears once you have legitimized their concerns. Lechnry and Lechnry published a patient handout designed to confront likely patient concerns about the questions pain practitioners may pose regarding previous drug use and misuse.10 The authors stated that sharing this handout with patients dramatically reduced complaints and misunderstandings from patients in their practice.

For example, when exploring patient fears about addiction, the practitioner could ask, "Have you ever taken Percocet or Vicodin to treat pain from a dental procedure or minor surgical procedure?" If the patient responds affirmatively, ask a bit further about the experience. If the patient denies having difficulty self-weaning from opioid therapy, the practitioner can assure the patient it is less likely they will become addicted to future opioid therapy, and explain the difference between physical dependence and addiction. The provider can explain further that savvy pain practitioners today must not only be expert in the therapeutics of pain management, but also must be prepared to screen for potential drug abuse and diversion.


Acute and chronic pain are pervasive, and medications play a large role in the management of pain. Practitioners need to be able to interact with patients to explore those patients' beliefs and fears about analgesic therapy, to project confidence in the practitioners' recommendations and monitoring plans, and educate patients on how to use the recommended medications safely to maximize therapeutic response.

Last updated on: October 28, 2014
close X