Amidst the opioid crisis that is affecting Rhode Island and the nation, Lifespan has been working to improve the health and safety of our patients with regard to the delivery of opioids. As a result, all patients who are prescribed opioids will soon receive safety information that will include the following important information.

What are opioids?

Opioids are prescription pain relievers. They are available in different forms, including pills, patches, sprays, lozenges, suppositories and injections. There are two basic types of opioid pain medications:

  • Short-acting/Immediate-release (SA/IR): These types of opioids are released into the body quickly and are generally used to treat severe or sudden pain for a short period of time.
  • Extended-release/Long-acting (ER/LA): These types of opioids are released into the body over longer periods of time or stay in the body longer and are used to treat persistent pain that requires treatment for an extended period of time.

Possible side effects of opioids

The side effects of opioid use can range from mild to severe. The most common is constipation. If this happens, your doctor may tell you to take a stool softener or laxative, add more fiber to your diet, and drink plenty of fluids. Other common side effects may include:  

  • headache
  • dizziness
  • nausea/vomiting
  • sweating
  • trouble sleeping
  • confusion or trouble concentrating
  • nightmares
  • itching
  • increased feet swelling
  • blurred vision
  • risk for falling
  • dry mouth
  • bladder dysfunction
  • decreased sex hormones
  • slowed rate of breathing

Opioid use risks

There are a number of risks that come with the use of opioids that you should be aware of:

  • Physical Dependence: when your body needs the medicine in order to work properly.  
  • Tolerance: when your body gets used to the medicine, it may not have the same effect it once did.
  • Addiction: a disease in which people crave or cannot control the use of the drug or continue using the drug even though they know it is not good for them. Talk with your healthcare provider about your risk for addiction.

The dos and don’ts of opioids

Whenever you are taking a prescribed medication, be sure you understand all the instructions. If you have a question, always ask your doctor or pharmacist.


  • Read the medication guide.
  • Follow your doctor’s instructions exactly on how to take your medication.
  • Tell your doctor about all other medications that you take.
  • Store your medicine in a safe place. You are responsible for using your medicine safely and away from others including family and friends.  Store the medicine in a child proof container such as a lock box.
  • Limit access to yourself or your caregiver only.
  • Use the same pharmacy for all your opioid prescriptions.


  • Do not drink alcohol while taking an opioid.
  • Do not adjust your own doses.
  • Do not break, chew, crush or dissolve tablets or capsules that are meant to be swallowed whole.
  • Do not give away or sell your opioid medication. It is against the law.
  • Do not drive or use machinery that needs mental alertness until you know how the medicine affects you.

Warning signs

If you experience any of the following, it’s critical that you receive immediate medical care. Call 9-1-1 if you are:

  • so sleepy that you cannot stay awake
  • too dizzy or weak to stand up
  • having trouble breathing
  • very confused

When used as directed, opioids can help people suffering with chronic pain. For many with back pain, our Norman Prince Spine Institute can help.

Keith Scarfo, DO

Keith Scarfo, DO, MS

Dr. Keith-Austin Scarfo is a board certified physician in both anesthesiology and pain medicine. Dr. Scarfo is the co-director of the Norman Prince Spine Institute and holds a faculty appointment as an associate professor – Department of Neurosurgery, The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University.