An alternative to opioids for dental discomfort

To fight the opioid crisis in the United States, the Department of Health and Human Services recently provided almost $2 billion in funding to expand access to treatment and make more effective use of data.  The dental community is also doing its part to help combat the issue. 

Some dental procedures, emergencies and surgeries, such as removing wisdom teeth or inserting dental implants, can cause short-term discomfort. To bring relief, dentists may prescribe medications.  However, a study in The Journal of the American Dental Association reports that extensive research shows the effectiveness of over-the counter medications. Combined with concerns about the potential dangers of opioids, it has resulted in less emphasis on prescribing opioids for dental issues. 

Over-the-counter relief has been proven to be more effective.

Studies show a combination of ibuprofen (Advil® and Motrin®) and acetaminophen (Tylenol®) are more effective for dental pain than prescription opioids like hydrocodone and oxycodone (for example, Vicodin® and OxyContin®).  In addition, over-the-counter medications are less likely than narcotic opioids to cause side effects such as addiction. 

As a result, the American Dental Association (ADA):

  • Emphasizes the use of non-narcotic medication as the first line of therapy for acute dental pain.
  • States opioids may still be appropriate if the original treatment does not work.  
  • Endorses mandatory continuing education for dentists in prescribing opioids.
  • Supports limits on dosage and duration of use of prescription opioids.  

Opioids pose potential dangers. 

Opioids are generally safe when used for a brief period to relieve oral pain, as prescribed by a dentist or other health care professional.  However, if used for longer periods or at a higher than prescribed dosage, opioids can lead to a risk of addiction, overdose and even death.  

Every day, an average of 46 Americans die from prescription opioid overdose, accounting for 35% of all opioid deaths.

Make sure to discuss options for relief, including over-the-counter medications, with your dentist. Let your dentist know if you are taking other medications or if you or family members have had substance abuse problems. For any medication, ask questions, so you clearly understand the directions and possible risks.