Addiction to Painkillers: Are You at Risk?
Many people confuse addiction with tolerance when taking pain meds. If you’re taking them as prescribed for medical reasons, addiction is not common.
Have you ever resisted taking pain medicine because you were worried about addiction?
You may have heard that abuse of prescription pain relievers – opiates like Vicodin and OxyContin – has been soaring.
The fact is, it’s not likely you’ll become addicted if you don’t have a history of substance abuse and if you take the medicine as directed by your doctor. The risk is even lower if you only need pain meds for a short time. Most abuse of pain medicines involves people who take these drugs for recreation.
Rejecting medicine to treat severe pain actually can cause problems beyond needless suffering. Toughing out chronic pain can raise blood pressure, cause fatigue and weakness, and delay your recovery from illness or surgery. It can also lead to depression, disability, or sleeplessness. Your body may also try to lessen pain by placing stress on another joint.
But caution is still in order for anyone taking pain meds. While opiates help relieve physical pain, they also affect the part of the brain that makes you feel pleasure. So, if you are suffering the emotional pain of an accident or illness, opiates may distance you from those feelings. That sudden sense of well-being or euphoria can be addictive to some people.
Physical dependence vs. addiction
It’s important to know the difference between addiction and physical dependence on a drug. Many people confuse the two and fear they are becoming addicted when they’re not.
It’s normal to develop a tolerance to painkillers over time. You start to need a higher dose to achieve the same level of relief. This dependence occurs naturally as your body adapts to the drug.
If you are addicted, though, your drug use will start to cause other problems. It will be hard to stop taking the medicine. Family members or friends may show concern. Instead of taking the pills orally as prescribed, you may inject, crush, or snort them. This can destroy the special time-release feature in a drug like OxyContin and cause a dangerous overdose.
If you’re taking pain meds and you’re worried you might be getting hooked, talk to your doctor right away. It can be tricky for a doctor to spot this type of substance abuse without your input.
Likewise, don’t raise the dose yourself or stop taking pain meds without medical guidance. Even when you decide you don’t need pain meds anymore, your body may have gotten used to the drug. So, if you stop taking them suddenly, you may get withdrawal symptoms.
Who is at risk?
Most doctors try to determine the potential for abuse in each person when prescribing opiates. People who have the highest risk of becoming addicted are those with:
- A personal or family history of substance abuse
- A personal or family history of mental illness, such as depression
If you are in one of these high-risk groups, ask your doctor to prescribe a medication that is less likely to be addictive. New pain medicines with less addictive properties are being developed, but their success in lowering abuse rates is not proven yet.
Another strategy is to use other pain therapies along with drugs. Physical therapy, for instance, may lessen the need for pain medication.
Using pain meds safely
Anyone who takes prescription pain meds should have an in-depth discussion with a doctor about safe use.
- Consult your doctor if your pain reliever stops working. Don’t increase the dose – or take it more often – on your own.
- Follow usage instructions. Do not chew, break, or crush tablets before swallowing.
- Never just take a double dose if you forget to take your pill. Ask your doctor what to do if you miss a dose.
- Ask your doctor about potential interactions with other drugs you are taking.
- Don’t use someone else’s prescription.
- Try to have all of your medicines prescribed by the same doctor and filled at the same pharmacy.
- Don’t take pain medicine to dull anxiety, stress, or depression.
- Don’t use opiates when drinking alcohol or taking drugs that slow breathing (such as sleeping pills, anti-anxiety drugs, or antihistamines).
- Keep your pain meds out of reach from children, teens, or anyone with a history of substance abuse.