Dealing With Pain In Recovery

It’s easy for alcoholics and other addicts to find excuses to use.  We come from a society where we take pills or other medication for every little thing — one that spends billions of dollars telling us that it is not OK to feel not OK.  That's an idea that resonates with all addicts.  We not only think that it’s not OK to feel less than wonderful, but that even when we feel good we need to try to feel better.  There’s a saying, “I drank because the dog ran away, then I drank because the dog came back.” Most people in recovery can relate to that.

Today I’m nursing a tooth extraction, and it got me to thinking about how many times I used pain as an excuse for drinking or taking other drugs.  Sometimes, if I could make up a good enough story, I could even get off work so that it wouldn’t interfere with my “convalescence.”  I was lucky, in that I didn’t need to shop for doctors or buy my drugs on the street.  I could just curl up with a bottle and dare anyone to object, because I was…whatever.

Teeth are an excellent example.  Most people find tooth pain pretty unpleasant, and a “hot” absess that comes on of a Friday evening can make for a pretty nasty weekend until you can get in to see the dentist — if you can get a timely appointment.  That’s a wonderful reason to take drugs, and many physicians and dentists are perfectly willing to prescribe the necessary painkillers to make that weekend a real party.

Well, our dentist is in recovery.  My wife and I hooked up with him back in about 1990, and we’ve been seeing him ever since for our dental needs. Not only does he know we’re in recovery, he knows all the junkie tricks from his own experience.  With his advice, I’ve discovered that you really don’t need booze or narcotics to get through some pretty severe pain.

Once you accept that you don’t dare use addictive substances, and begin to look around, you find that there are a lot of non-narcotic pain relievers (analgesics) that work just fine in most cases.  Take the old reliable ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, etc.).  I’ve gotten through a couple of the “hot absesses on the weekend” over the years, taking nothing but prescription strength doses of plain old over-the-counter (OTC) ibuprofen (on the doc’s advice, of course).  It turns out it can kick some serious pain, if you take it soon enough.  With any analgesic, even morphine, if you wait too long it takes more to knock the pain back.

There are a variety of other OTC preparations that work well for moderate to severe pain. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) works well for some purposes, in folks who don’t have compromised livers.  Naproxin sodium (Aleve, Anaprox) is often effective for muscle pain, especially if combined with valerian, a muscle-relxing herb available OTC at any pharmacy.  It should be noted that all of the preceding drugs can cause severe gastrointestinal problems, and may interact with other medications. You need to read the labels carefully, and follow the guidelines they set out unless told otherwise by your doctor or pharmacist.

When we get into actual prescription medications, the list gets too long to cover here.  One warning, however, and it’s a big one: many doctors don’t really know whether a particular drug is mood-altering or addictive, so don't believe what they tell you about that aspect of medications — ever.  Check it out for yourself.  Most of them have little training in pharmacology — not their field, really — and sometimes doctors depend more than they should on information provided by the drug companies.  Those folks, as you might imagine, are very slow to mention addictive qualities in their products.  Ask any of the many millions of people who became addicted to “harmless” tranquilizers over the past 50 years.

When it comes to any drug, people in recovery need to do their own research and learn to self-advocate when necessary.  It’s easy to do.  Go to and enter the name of a drug to get a full list of possible side effects.  There are a number of other sites, including good ol’ Wikipedia, that profide the same information.  Let’s not forget the pharmacist, either.  He or she will be able to tell you such things in detail, and if you share that you are not able to take mood-altering medications, they will be happy to give advice.  Count on them, too, to let you know if a new medication has potential adverse interactions with meds you are already taking.

It isn’t my purpose here to make suggestions aboud medications for specific applications.  I’m not qualified to do so.  However, I can speak from my own experience and that of people I know well.  Bottom line: you don’t need to use narcotics or other mood-altering drugs to control pain in most routine situations — unless you want to.

And that is a different problem altogether.