More often than not, we reach into our medicine cabinets for some Ibuprofen to ease a migraine; We take Aleve for arthritis, Vicodin for post-wisdom teeth removal, oxycodone for a severe sports injury. We rely on these painkillers to literally kill the pain, forgetting that, in actuality, these pills do not “cure” anything at all. They only temporarily mask the pain for which are taken.
Just as painkillers are convenient and effective, they are also convincing. Despite their likeness to other dangerous drugs such as heroin, they always seem to fall off our radar of being one of the most abused and dangerous substances out there today. Their potential risk for addiction is disguised in their availability; their potential threat of fatality is covered up by their legality. All the while, our perceptions on the perils of prescription painkillers remains masked— until now.
Every day, nearly 7,000 people in the U.S. are treated in emergency departments for using prescription painkillers in a manner other than as directed. Each day, approximately 44 people die from an opioid overdose. Even more become addicted.
Prescription painkillers are insidious, infesting America’s drug scene at full force, and taking everyone, including users, by surprise. The growing popularity of painkillers, or opioids, is largely compromised by their increasing availability: 62 percent of teens abuse prescription drugs because they are easiest to obtain from their parents’ medicine cabinets. 51 percent believe the pills are not illegal, so they must be safe. 21 percent assume their parents won’t care as much if caught.
Painkillers have traditionally been used to treat moderate-to-severe pain, and are most often prescribed by doctors for pain following a surgery, an injury, or health conditions such as cancer. In recent years, however, opioids have become even more accessible—and accepted—for chronic circumstances, such as constant back pain.
This is where the problem first arises—these drugs are now being used consistently, and long-term use is being perceived as harmless. While prescription painkillers are safe in moderation, many individuals remain seriously susceptible to addiction. Without the proper precautions, long-term use of opioids can undoubtedly lead to both physical and psychological dependence. Classified as Schedule II drugs by the DEA, prescription painkillers are defined with very high potential for abuse and “severe dependence.” Even worse, the most commonly prescribed medications are concurrently some of the most dangerous opioids out there today: hydrocodone (Vicodin), oxycodone (OxyContin), fentanyl, and methadone are listed alongside cocaine, all posing an equal threat of addiction and physical harm to their users.
Opioid addictions often surface with similar stories: Say, for example, a college athlete injures his foot in a soccer game. He needs surgery, and is prescribed a medication to numb the pain. He wants to get back in the game, though, and accordingly tries to speed up the healing process. He takes four pills a day, instead of two, because he wants to ensure that he’s getting better. He forgets that this drug is not what’s curing him. As his foot heals, his body aches for more pills.
Prescription painkillers interfere with the body’s nervous system and its transmission of the nerve signals we perceive as pain. Simultaneously, the drugs work to stimulate pleasure in the brain—replacing pain with a “high.” The most powerful painkillers are composed of opium-like compounds, possessing a similar anatomy to heroin. Prolonged use, therefore, provokes withdrawal symptoms that are especially debilitating.
Restlessness, insomnia, persistent muscle pain, vomiting, and respiratory depression are main indications of opioid abuse. If you or a loved one is currently taking prescription painkillers regularly, it is extremely important to monitor use and keep watch for these symptoms. Overtime, the body will build up a tolerance to the drug, and higher dosages will be sought out as a result. If usage increases, or continues past the allotted time because the pain has only exacerbated, a drug dependence may have developed. If more time is spent on filling prescriptions than studying, interacting with friends, or even bathing, a problem likely exists.
There are, of course, ways to prevent dependence altogether, and if you are initiating the use of prescription painkillers, it is important to first determine your potential risk for addiction. Talk to your doctor: establish how much pain you should anticipate with your condition, and all of your options for managing that pain moving forward. Ask your clinician to conduct a medical and a psychiatric evaluation before issuing a long-term opioid prescription. Ensure this is the best option for you, and remember, it is not the only one. If you find you are susceptible to drug addiction, try to avoid risky painkillers altogether (codeine, morphine, oxycodone). Explore other methods of safe and effective pain management, such as behavioral therapies and lower-strength medications. If you are prescribed a painkiller, be sure to carefully follow dosage instructions. Medications, after all, are prescribed in amounts appropriate for your consumption. Have a plan, stick to it, and most importantly, get help at the first signs of dependence.
If you are at all wary of an opioid addiction, act on that suspicion immediately and obtain a professional opinion. Our team at Turnbridge will do all we can to provide you the help you deserve. Let’s lift the mask; let’s rediscover you.