Misuse of pain medication is on the rise, both legally and illicitly. While addiction is not a natural result of professionally guided pain management, a small percentage of people will develop a dependency that leads to prescription abuse. Because the brain reacts in specific ways to opiate-based painkillers, this type of addiction is a disease, often beyond the control of an individual.
The majority of individuals who require some type of pain management do not abuse their medications. However, research continues to reflect that a serious problem that encompasses all ages exists today.
The Rise in the Abuse of Pain Medications
Easy access to painkillers is, perhaps, responsible for the higher percentage of people who either abuse or are addicted to prescription painkillers.
More adults are requesting pain prescriptions from their doctors. As a result, more and more young people in households, including teens and young adults, have access to prescription medications. This, perhaps, explains the rise in abuse among teens, who are too young to purchase alcohol but have access to relatives’ medicine cabinets.
In addition, the ability to purchase prescription pain medications from the Internet has probably helped increase the percentage of people who suffer from an addiction to painkillers.
The Science of Addiction to Pain Medication
Why some individuals begin to misuse pain medication is easy to understand. When a painkiller enters the bloodstream, the pain receptors in the brain shut down, eliminating pain. However, as the drugs exit the system, withdrawal symptoms, including body aches and vomiting, can occur.
An individual who is taking pain medication can confuse the withdrawal symptoms with the pain for which he is taking the medication and might continue taking the medication to prevent the pain. Over time, the person can develop an addiction to the pain medication, making it hard or virtually impossible for a person to stop taking it.
Experts define addiction very specifically. For instance, a person may develop a physical dependency on painkillers or may develop a tolerance to pain medications. These are not technically addictions.
The University of Pennsylvania Health System defines addiction as: “A disease process characterized by the continued use of a specific psychoactive substance despite physical, psychological or social harm.”
Physical dependency can accompany an addiction, though it often does not.
An individual can exhibit addictive tendencies in a number of ways, including the following:
- An addict may start combining pain medication with alcohol in order to achieve a desired effect.
- Commonly, isolation or alienation occurs in order to continue the abuse.
- Individuals seek out multiple doctors for prescriptions.
- The user does not recognize that the drug misuse is an addiction.
- Use of the painkiller continues in spite of the potential side effects or dangers, especially once the original condition is cured.
Individuals Prone to Addiction
- Studies show that some individuals have a predilection for developing an addiction to pain medication. The following people are more prone to develop an addiction to pain medications:
- abusers of other addictive products, including alcohol and tobacco
- individuals whose family members have a history of addiction
- people who have mental disorders, including those who suffer from depression, anxiety and compulsive behaviors.
Opiates, Opioids and Pain Medication Addiction
The actual risk for addiction to pain medication, even with long-term use, is small when taken under the guidance of legitimate professionals. However, anyone who takes a painkiller can develop an addiction. People can develop addictions to prescription and over-the-counter pain medications. However, a class of stronger medications known as opioids and opiates are often at the center of abuse statistics:
- Opiates are natural and synthetic opium derivatives.
- Opioids encompass opiates but include any medication that affects the body’s opioid receptors, which are located in the gastrointestinal tract, the brain and the spine.
Some of the most powerful opiates and opioids are:
- Codeine: A prescription drug for less severe pain, often prescribed to relieve coughing.
- Hydrocodone: A prescription drug for moderate to severe pain. Vicodin® is in this category.
- Meperidine: A prescription drug for moderate to severe pain.
- Morphine: This pain medication is commonly prescribed for post-surgical pain.
- Oxycodone: This pain medication is a strong codeine derivative that is used for mid-level to severe pain. OxyContin® is included in this category.
- Propoxyphene: This is a narcotic analgesic used for moderate to severe pain. This category includes Darvon®.
Negative Health Impact of Painkillers
The negative side effects from painkillers are many and can lead to life-threatening health issues, including:
- dry mouth
- heart rate fluctuation
Avoiding a Pain Medication Addiction
Patients who are aware that withdrawal may occur can typically manage the symptoms. Therefore, it is important to ask your doctor about the withdrawal symptoms that might occur when you stop taking your medication. For instance, the side effects of morphine withdrawal include:
- abdominal cramping
- muscle and bone aches
Withdrawal symptoms generally resolve within a few days. While experiencing the symptoms, however, some individuals undergo an extreme urge to continue using the pain medication. Talk to your doctor about ways to avoid taking pain medication unnecessarily.
To prevent a pain medication addiction, you should also always follow your doctor’s instructions on how to take your medicine. Never take more than prescribed and never take pain medication that has not been prescribed specifically to you.
If a person does develop an addiction to pain medications, he should seek alternative ways to treat his pain. Additionally, he may need to enter a specialized treatment center in order to learn how to manage his addiction on a day-to-day basis.