Painkiller addiction is an epidemic in the U.S. Opioids, drugs that help to alleviate pain, can be highly addictive. Some are illegal, like heroin and fentanyl. Others are legal prescription medications. These include drugs like oxycodone (OxyContin®, Percocet®), hydrocodone (Vicodin®), and codeine. Prescription painkillers help millions of people live with less pain, but if they are abused, addiction can set in. And the consequences can be severe. In 2017, opioid painkillers resulted in over 49,000 overdoses. But how does someone become addicted to painkillers?
How Painkiller Addiction Starts
Painkiller abuse usually starts when someone is prescribed opioid medication. If you have something like a mild headache, then over-the-counter medication can be effective. For more severe pain, a doctor is likely to recommend an opioid painkiller. This type of pain can be caused by different conditions, including:
- Low back pain
- Multiple sclerosis
- Nerve damage
Chronic pain can interfere with a person’s daily functioning and be a source of stress, anxiety, depression, frustration, isolation, and anger. When no other treatment alleviates the pain, opioids can help. For this reason, someone with chronic pain may find it difficult to stop using opioids. Even though the pain might be managed without the opioids, they work very effectively. And when someone is hooked on them, they experience compulsions and withdrawal symptoms.
What Makes Opioid Painkillers Addictive?
Opioids treat the kind of pain that doesn’t respond well to other medication by binding to opioid receptors in your brain and spinal cord and disrupting pain signals. Opioids tell your brain you’re not in pain. They can also give you a high, resulting in feelings of:
This is another reason people develop painkiller addiction. You may suffer an injury and experience intense pain that requires an opioid, but you come to enjoy the drug’s effects. When the injury heals and the pain fades, you may still crave the drug, despite it having no medical use. Doctors prescribe opioid medication to be taken at certain doses and particular times. Careful prescription helps treat pain while reducing the risk of addiction. But people may take the drug more often than recommended—and at higher doses—to get high. This is known as prescription drug abuse. It can result in increased tolerance to the drug and eventually addiction. Soon, you start taking painkillers just to feel normal.
People at Risk of Painkiller Addiction
There’s no exact way to tell who will become addicted to painkillers. The causes of addiction are complex. Your genes, upbringing, environment, and lifestyle may all make a difference. But there are certain people who have a higher risk of becoming addicted. Risk factors include:
- Previous history with addiction to alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs
- Family history of addiction – You may have inherited specific genes that increase your risk of addiction.
- Your age – Prescription drug abuse is most common in young people. This is because they may experiment with a painkiller in order to get high.
- Mental health conditions, such as anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – Painkillers don’t only suppress physical pain. They can numb emotional pain and ease feelings of worry or sadness. If you suffer from depression and get prescribed opioids for a broken leg, you may continue to take them after your leg has healed because you’ve come to rely on the painkillers to deal with emotional distress. This is known as a dual diagnosis.
- Easy access to prescription drugs – Someone in your house may use or abuse them. This makes it easy to access opioids when you don’t need them. Or perhaps you live in an area where prescription drug abuse is common, and you feel pressure to join friends in experimenting.
The Signs of Painkiller Addiction
If you feel your opioid use is getting out of control, or fear this for someone else, there are some warning signs you should look out for.
- Pinpoint or dilated pupils
- Trouble with coordination
- Insomnia or hypersomnia (excessive sleepiness)
- Irregular heartbeat
- Excessive sweating
- Slurred or impaired speech
- Borrowing or stealing medication
- Spending a lot of time obtaining, using, and recovering from painkiller abuse
- ‘Doctor shopping’ (visiting multiple doctors for prescriptions)
- Getting prescription pain medications from other sources, such as the internet or the street, or by illegally writing your own prescriptions
- Trouble focusing or concentrating
- Impaired judgment
- Mood swings
There are other signs of painkiller addiction, such as:
- Long-term use of prescription pain medications
- Feeling angry or defensive when someone talks to you about it
- Not feeling like your normal self – You may have noticed you’ve become more reclusive, jittery, and agitated. You might start neglecting areas of your life, such as:
- Personal hygiene
- Social life
How Painkiller Addiction Can Be Stopped
If you’ve been prescribed painkillers and feel worried about your use, tell your doctor straight away. They will be able to advise you on the best course of action, especially new ways to deal with your pain. It’s important to be honest with friends and family, as well as yourself. The first step in recovering from painkiller addiction is recognizing the problem for what it is. There are a number of treatment options for addiction to painkillers:
- Alternative forms of pain management, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBD), exercise, yoga, and physiotherapy
- Support groups, including Narcotics Anonymous (NA)
- Medical painkiller detox (if your drug addiction is advanced)
- Inpatient rehab, outpatient rehab, or intensive outpatient program
- Counseling or therapy
Drawing on your support network is crucial. Reach out to family or friends for help if you need it. Often, having a conversation about painkiller addiction with a loved one is the first step to recovery. If you’re worried someone you care about is addicted to painkillers, look out for the telltale signs listed above, and reach out to a treatment center for guidance. With the right kind of support and treatment, anyone can recover from painkiller addiction and lead a healthy and happy life.