Prescription Pain-Relief Patches Can Relieve Severe Pain

A Look at the Different Types Available and How They Are Used

woman applying pain patch to neck and shoulder
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Medicated skin patches for pain relief are available for short-term as well as chronic pain, and when used properly can offer significant pain relief. Pain-relief patches are a popular choice for people who cannot tolerate oral medication because of stomach irritation, ulcers, or other reasons. As with all medications, risks are associated with the use of pain-relief patches, and they should be used only as prescribed by a qualified healthcare professional.

How to Use Pain-Relief Patches

Patients should wash their hands before and after touching a patch to avoid contaminating the drug and to keep the drug from being applied to an unsafe area such as the eyes or mouth.

Pain-relief patches should only be used on skin that is not broken, cut or scraped. In some cases, a patch can cause irritation, blisters or a burning sensation where it is applied. These adverse effects are usually mild and go away after a few hours.

Problems have been reported with the use of patches that have been cut to apply a smaller dose of the drug. Patches should not be cut, and patients should not use a pain-relief patch that has been cut, torn, or damaged unless directed to do so by their physician.

Like all medicines, patches should be stored away from children and pets. The best way to dispose of a patch is to fold it in half so the adhesive side sticks to itself. A used patch should be thrown away where children and pets cannot come into contact with it.

Types of Pain-Relief Patches

  • Flector (diclofenac epolamine): Of the three widely used prescription pain-relief patches, only Flector is a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), a class of painkiller that includes aspirin, Advil and Motrin (ibuprofen), and Aleve and Naprosyn (naproxen). This medicine is prescribed for pain from sprains, muscle strain, or other minor injuries. The patch can be applied near the area that is injured if there is no broken skin. Like other NSAIDs, there is some risk of cardiovascular problems—including heart attack or stroke—in patients using Flector. There is also the risk of irritation, inflammation or bleeding in the stomach or elsewhere in the gastrointestinal tract, although there may be less risk of that with Flector than with oral NSAIDs.
  • Lidoderm (lidocaine): This medicine is a local anesthetic often prescribed for patients suffering from the pain of shingles (post-herpetic neuralgia). It should be applied near the area where the pain is greatest, as long as the skin is intact. Lidoderm is also used by some patients for arthritis pain. The patch can be applied directly over the joint causing the pain.
  • Duragesic (fentanyl): This medicine is used to treat moderate to severe chronic pain. Also available as a generic drug, fentanyl is a strong opioid pain medication and should be used only by people with long-term, chronic pain after other pain-relief drugs, including other opioids, have been tried. It is not intended for short-term pain, headaches, or pain after surgery or dental procedures.

FDA Warnings and Other Risks

There is the potential that the person's body may develop a tolerance to fentanyl; there is also the potential for addiction, although when used properly, fentanyl can provide safe and effective pain relief. The physician prescribing fentanyl should educate the patient in its safe use and should monitor patients using it.

In 2005, the FDA issued a warning about fentanyl patch safety. Another warning was issued in 2007 after an increasing number of accidental overdoses were reported. Overdoses have occurred when more than one patch is used at a time and when a non-patient—such as a child—accidentally comes into contact with a patch. In 2012, the FDA reiterated its warnings about fentanyl patches after several children died of accidental exposure. In 2013, the FDA required color changes to the writing on the Fentanyl patches so that they were easier to see.

According to the FDA: "Young children have died or become seriously ill from accidental exposure to a skin patch containing fentanyl, a powerful pain reliever. .... An overdose of fentanyl—caused when the child either puts the patch in his or her mouth or applies it to the skin—can cause death by slowing breathing and increasing the levels of carbon dioxide in the blood."

Heat can also increase the dose of fentanyl delivered by the patch. Although the patch can be worn when bathing, long, hot showers or baths can increase the risk of overdose; hot tubs, electric blankets, prolonged sun exposure, and heating pads should also be avoided. Ultimately, fentanyl patches can be dangerous in the wrong hands or if applied improperly.

A Word From Verywell

If you have any questions about the use, efficacy, or safety of pain patches, please discuss these concerns with your physician. Although pain patches are effective, they need to be used safely, properly, and under the guidance of your physician. It's very important to keep pain patches away from children and pets.

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Article Sources

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  • "Flector Patch." Jul. 2005. Food and Drug Administration.

  • "Lidoderm." Apr. 2006. Food and Drug Administration.

  • "Proper Use of Fentanyl Pain Patches." Mar. 2006. Food and Drug Administration.

  • "Transdermal Patches: To Cut or Not Cut." Oregon DUR Board Newsletter 10.8 Nov. 2008