Many patients and families have inaccurate notions about prescription drugs that relieve pain. "Palliative care"—the medical discipline of making comfort a priority, especially at the end of life—is a relatively new field. As a consequence, people often make medication decisions on the basis of an incomplete understanding of the issues. The following are some of the most common myths about the use of opioids for pain relief:
Fear of addiction or dependency. Addiction is a physical and psychological dependency on a substance. When people worry about addictions, they often conjure images of desperate individuals who behave in irrational and illegal ways in order to get a "fix." People who take morphine for pain rarely become addicted. For instance, patients in hospitals who are given unlimited access to a morphine pump following surgery typically undermedicate themselves. It is extremely unlikely that a patient in the advanced stages of a terminal illness will develop that type of desperate physical/psychological dependence. Unfortunately, a fear of addiction often results in family caregivers not giving the patient enough medication, which leads to the patient experiencing unnecessarily high levels of pain.
Fear of developing a tolerance. Some people are concerned that if the patient takes pain medication too early, the body will adjust (i.e., develop a tolerance) and need increasing dosages to get the same effect.