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Painkiller Addiction: The Hidden Truth Behind America’s Epidemic 

In the United States, painkiller addiction is a serious problem. In 2019 alone, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) reported close to 50,000 deaths from opioid-related overdoses. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported an opioid misuse economic burden of $1.02 trillion in 2017 due to the cost of healthcare, addiction recovery treatment, lost productivity, and the strain on the criminal justice system.

Painkiller addiction doesn’t just happen to celebrities like Prince, Heath Ledger, and Tom Petty. It can happen to anyone – even those who receive legitimate prescriptions for short-term use after surgery – or those who use it to treat chronic pain.

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    Can You Die from Abusing Painkillers?

    Yes – taking too many opioid painkillers can kill you through overdose.  An overdose causes severe central nervous system (CNS) depression. Your CNS is what controls your involuntary functions like your breathing and your heartbeat.

    Beyond slowed and shallow breathing, opioid overdose can cause:

    • Nausea and vomiting
    • Confusion and dizziness
    • Weakness
    • Seizures

    Many of the symptoms from painkillers are also associated with being drunk. When someone combines alcohol with these pain medicines, the risk of death increases. Why? Because alcohol also depresses the CNS.

    If you notice someone exhibiting these symptoms and you know they’ve taken opioids, or struggle with prescription drug abuse, seek medical help right away. Do not let the person “sleep it off” because they may never wake up.

    How Painkiller Addiction Happens

    When used correctly, prescription painkillers can be an effective way to treat severe pain. For many, taking opioid medications even as prescribed and only as needed, can lead to addiction.

    Opioids work by triggering the release of endorphins, or “feel-good” chemicals. The endorphins interact with the opioid receptors in your brain to dampen your body’s perception of pain. The result? You don’t hurt as much (or at all) even though your body is still injured. And, you feel great, too.

    Once the dose wears off, you may find that you want to get those feelings again as soon as possible – and that’s the first sign you may be headed toward prescription painkiller addiction.

    The longer you take opioids, the more slowly your body will produce endorphins. Over time, the dose you started with won’t produce the same euphoric effects because your body has built up a tolerance. This leads to you taking more than the prescribed dose to achieve the same effect.

    Today’s medical professionals are aware of opioid risks, so it’s difficult to get your doctor to increase your dose – either in the form of a higher strength or more pills. Some may not even renew the prescription. It’s at this point that some users will resort to illegally obtained prescription painkillers, heroin, or fentanyl. Fentanyl is often stronger and laced with other chemicals, which further fuels the addiction and increases the risk of harm or death.

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    Is an Opioid Addiction the Same as a Painkiller Addiction?

    The phrase “opioid addiction” is the same as painkiller addiction since opioids are the active chemical in painkillers that cause addiction in painkillers and other opioids like heroin. Opioid addiction is different than stimulant addiction and benzodiazepine addiction since the active ingredients cause a very different effects in the human body and bind to different receptors within the brain. Ultimately, when you’re addicted to painkillers, it’s the opiate you’re addicted to. It doesn’t matter whether it comes from heroin or one of the many opiate medications prescribed.

    That said, there are other less addictive “painkillers” on the market today, like gabapentin, that aren’t opiate-based. Gabapentin is an anticonvulsant medication that’s often used to treat nerve pain. Though it has lesser addiction potential, users can still become physically dependent on the medication.

    Most Commonly Abused Painkillers

    The most commonly abused painkillers include:

    • Oxycodone with or without acetaminophen (Tylenol) added (available under many brand names like Oxycotin, Roxycodone, and Percocet)
    • Hydrocodone with or without acetaminophen added (available under many brand names like Vicodin, Lortab, and Norco)
    • Meperidine (Demerol)
    • Morphine
    • Codeine

    If you’re taking prescribed opioids for a few days to treat acute pain, you’re not likely to become addicted. It takes about two weeks to become physically dependent on the medication.

    Physical dependence means that you’ll have symptoms of tolerance (needing a higher dose to achieve the same effect) and withdrawal symptoms when you stop taking the medication. Being physically dependent doesn’t always mean you’re addicted, but it could mean that addiction is coming.

    Addiction leads to behavioral changes as a result of chemical changes in the brain. Substance use becomes a priority, no matter what it may mean for users or their loved ones.

    The Progression Of Painkiller Addiction

    Prescription painkillers are depressants or “downers,” which means they are different from other prescription stimulant pharmaceuticals like Adderall. Prescription amphetamine abuse and misuse can progress to cocaine or meth while prescription painkillers many times progress to heroin addiction.

    What Are Some Long-Term Effects Of Painkiller Addiction?

    The longer someone engages in substance abuse, the more the body will adapt and become reliant on opioids. They may experience withdrawal symptoms if they attempt to reduce the dose or stop cold turkey. The withdrawal symptoms include:

    • Abdominal pain, cramping, nausea, and vomiting
    • Anxiety and restlessness
    • Insomnia
    • Muscle pain
    • Increased heart rate

    Taking more opioids relieves the withdrawal symptoms, thus allowing the user to function, and the cycle continues.

    Frequently Asked Questions: Opiate Crisis

    When was the opioid crisis considered an epidemic?

    The first wave began with increased prescribing of opioids in the 1990s, with overdose deaths involving prescription opioids (natural and semi-synthetic opioids and methadone) increasing since at least 1999. The second wave began in 2010, with rapid increases in overdose deaths involving heroin

    What caused the opioid epidemic in the US?

    The opioid crisis started in the mid-1990s when OxyContin, promoted by Purdue Pharma and approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), became widely prescribed and caused a wave of prescription opioid-related overdoses. Many doctors knowingly overprescribed the substance and received money which served as a catalyst to wide distribution of OxyContin.

    Is OxyContin still prescribed?

    Yes, OxyContin is still prescribed today for moderate to severe pain resulting from injuries like broken bones, bursitis, neuralgia, arthritis, and cancer. Oxycodone hydrochloride is the chemical marketed under the brand name OxyContin. There are many more restrictions on prescribing the drug than there were in the past. Users of OxyContin became so addicted that many of them switched to heroin which is cheaper and easier to obtain after restrictions were placed on prescribing OxyContin.

    Have pharmaceutical companies been held accountable for the opioid epidemic?

    Purdue Pharma owned by the Sackler Family has been in federal court and has gone through bankruptcy restructuring as a result of the court cases filed against them for their part in the opioid epidemic. In addition to making reparations, they are distributing Nalmefene HCl Injection, 2mg/2mL (1mg/1mL) in the U.S. for the Treatment of Known or Suspected Overdose with Natural or Synthetic Opioids free of charge as mandated by the courts. Many believe that the consequences of their role in the epidemic were not enough.

    What is a pill mill?

    Doctors knowingly overprescribed the oxycontin and received money which served as a catalyst for the wide distribution of OxyContin.  Florida became known for pill mills. In the 2000s individuals traveled from all over the country to Florida to go to pill mills where they would pay cash for their prescription to obtain OxyContin.

    Recovery and Treatment for Painkiller Addiction

    The good news is that recovery is possible. Depending on the extent of the addiction, several treatment options are available. More serious addiction may require inpatient treatment. This type of rehab is intensive and focused on helping patients get on the road to long-term sobriety without the distractions of everyday life. Outpatient programs allow the patient to participate in a treatment program as part of their daily lives.

    At Magnified Health, we’re here to help. We offer a number of addiction treatment options, personalized for the individual. If you or someone you love is suffering from a prescription painkiller addiction, get in touch with us today. You’re not alone.

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    This content is verified and moderated by Dr. Brendan Bickley

    This content is verified and moderated by Dr. Brendan Bickley

    Dr. Bickley graduated from U.C. Irvine with honors: Phi Beta Kappa, Golden Key International Honor Society, Cum Laude. He has been featured on national radio and print media. He is also a frequent lecturer at National Conferences. He holds an A.S. degree in Drug & Alcohol Studies, and two B.A. degrees in Criminology & Psychology, and masters and doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology. He is a licensed California Drug & Alcohol Counselor Level II, a licensed Clinical Supervisor and is certified in treating Eating Disorders.

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