Addicted to Painkillers

Addicted to Painkillers? Everything You Should Know About Opiate Addiction

Last updated on July 1st, 2019 at 01:55 pm

Are you, or someone you know, addicted to opiates?

Opiate addiction is becoming a bigger and bigger problem in this country.

Right now, the leading cause of accidental death in the US is due to drug overdose. In 2015, there were 52,404 deaths due to a drug overdose. Of these deaths, 20,101 were due to opiates.

Today, over 115 die per day from abusing opioids.

How do we make this epidemic stop?

That’s a loaded question, and one with many possible solutions. One thing that will help is to educate yourself on this addiction.

Whether you yourself have an addiction to opiates, or you know a loved one who is going through an addiction to painkillers, read on to learn everything you need to know about opiate addiction.

1. What are Opiates?

In order to understand opiate addiction, we first need to understand what opiates are.

Opiates are actually some of the oldest known drugs in the world. In fact, their history spans several centuries as well as several continents. The first known recording of opiate use comes from 3400 BC, where in ancient Mesopotamia farmers cultivated opium for medicinal and recreational use.

Over the centuries, opiate spread to other countries, one of which was the US. In fact, for about 400 years in the US, scientist mixed opiates into pharmaceutical drugs.

Today, people seem to use the terms opiates and opioids interchangeably, however, there is a difference between the two.

Any drug that derives from the opium plant is considered an opiate. There are Schedule II and Schedule I opiates. The ones that people use in medical settings for pain relief are considered Schedule II.

Those considered “no acceptable safety use” are Schedule I. These will include things like morphine, codeine, and heroin.

Opioids, on the other hand, refer to synthetic or at least partially synthetic drugs that have a similar effect to opiates.

In fact, some treatment centers even use opioids in order to treat opiate addiction.

Some drugs that are opioids include Vicodin, Demerol, Percocet, and Oxycodone.

However, when speaking of addiction, people often use the words opiates and opioids interchangeably, so don’t let that confuse you.

2. How Does the Addiction Start?

Opiates, as you know, are painkillers.

When people go to the doctor and complain about their pain, about 20 percent fo the time, the doctor will prescribe them opiates.

The doctor will give the patient a specified dose, and almost always, the patient ha absolutely no intention of abusing the drug.

However, as time goes on, the person may find that the drug is no longer as effective as it was when they were first using it. This is because the person has developed a tolerance for the drug, which means they will keep needing more and more of it in order to feel its original effects.

What makes opiates so addictive is that they produce artificial endorphins in the brain.

These artificial endorphins can make a person feel really good. When someone is on opiates, they often feel a sense of euphoria. However, when the tolerance builds up, this sense of euphoria can start to wear off. Therefore, the person may want more in order to bring that original feeling back.

3. Types of Opiates

We’ve already gone over a few of the different types of opiates, but let’s dive in a little deeper so you can get a better understanding of each one.

Here are the most common opiates that people get addicted to:

Codeine

Codeine, believe it or not, is actually an over the counter medication. And, one can also easily get their hands on it through a prescription.

It is one of the milder forms of opiates, however, it is still dangerous. Typically, you can find codeine in pain relievers for coughing.

This is an opiate that is most commonly abused by young adults, and it is often mixed with a sugary drink. Street names for this are “sizzurp” or “purple drank.”

Fentanyl

This is a synthetic painkiller, with its potency being 100 times that of morphine.

Doctors prescribe Fentanyl only to those who are in severe amounts of pain.

Oftentimes, addicts will use Fentanyl in conjunction with other drugs, such as heroin. This can commonly lead to overdose and death.

Demerol

Doctors prescribe demerol to treat pain that ranges from moderate to severe.

It has an extremely high potential for addiction, therefore, it is prescribed less frequently these days.

Darvon

Due to the fact that it once caused thousands of deaths and hospitalizations, Darvon is now banned by the FDA. However, there is still a black market for this drug.

Methadone

Doctors prescribe methadone to treat moderate to severe pain. And, interestingly enough, it is actually used to help treat other addictions.

However, it can still be dangerous itself.

Oxycodone

Oxycodone is perhaps one of the most widely prescribed painkillers out there. Its potential for abuse is also extremely high.

Morphine

Patients who are in severe amounts of pain often rely on morphine in order to subdue some of the pain and get by.

Unfortunately, this can and does often turn into an addiction. In fact, it is one of the leading causes of unintentional deaths related to drugs.

Hydrocodone

Hydrocodone is often one of the main ingredients in other powerful painkillers.

One well-known drug that it is found in is Vicodin. Pure hydrocodone is also available for prescription, which has an extremely high potential for addiction.

4. Signs of an Opiate Addiction

If you or someone you know has been taking any of these prescriptions to deal with pain, then you need to know if it is leading to an addiction.

There are common signs that occur when someone is abusing opiates. These include:

  • Numbness
  • Shallow breathing
  • Itching
  • Small pupils
  • Flushed skin
  • Rashes on skin
  • Constipation
  • Slurred speech

These are the common physical symptoms of opiate addiction. However, sometimes the most tell-tale signs are the mental and emotional symptoms. These include:

  • Confusion
  • Poor judgment
  • Anxiety
  • Indecisiveness
  • Memory issues
  • Concentration issues

These are usually the short-term signs you will see when someone has an addiction to opiates. However, there are also things that can happen long-term, some of which are irreparable.

These include:

  • Inflammation of the heart: An inflamed heart is an extremely serious issue. This can lead to increased risk of a stroke or a heart attack.
  • HIV/AIDS: While opiates cannot directly cause HIV or AIDS, those who take opiates are often more susceptible to contracting it. This is because once someone has an addiction to opiates, they will seek out different ways to ingest the substance, one of which is through needles. All it takes is one infected needle to contract the disease.
  • Mood Disorders: It is very common for long-term opiate addicts to develop mood disorders, such as depression or anxiety.
  • Hormonal Imbalances: Opiate can cause hormones to go completely out of whack. For example, someone may see a major decrease in sex drive over time.

And of course, the most dangerous long-term effect is the increased risk of overdose.

Let’s look in the next section at the risk factors that make someone more susceptible to a long-term addiction or an overdose.

5. Risk Factors For Addiction

When people use opiates as a short-term solution to treat pain, that is, for no more than a few days, they can actually be quite effective and helpful for a person dealing with pain.

However, the risk factors for addiction can quickly cause the tides to turn.

Risk factors for addiction increase when someone starts taking them in a different manner from what they get prescribed.

For example, someone may crush them up and snort them or they may start injecting them through needles. The effect of ingesting them in these manners will produce a much stronger effect, which will leave the person wanting more and more.

Also, as we just said, opiates can be extremely helpful when used only for a few days. It is only after five days- that’s right, five short days- that the chance of someone being on opiates a year from now increase dramatically.

There are also psychological, genetic, and environmental factors which put people at a greater risk for developing an addiction. These include:

  • A family history of addiction
  • Unemployment
  • Poverty
  • Young age
  • History of criminal activity
  • History of other substance abuse
  • Being in stressful circumstances
  • Heavy use of tobacco products
  • History of anxiety or depression
  • Major problems with friends, family members, or employers

In addition to these risk factors, it is important to note that women are especially susceptible to opiate addiction. 

This is because women are more likely to deal with chronic pain then men are. Therefore, they are also more likely to receive a prescription for opiates. And, interestingly, doctors are more likely to prescribe them higher doses of opiates overtime.

There is also some scientific evidence out there that supports the fact that women, just biologically, are much more likely to become dependent on prescription painkillers.

6. Withdrawal

Withdrawal is another major sign that someone has an addiction to opiates. And, because withdrawal can be extremely uncomfortable, it is also one of the leading reasons people have trouble quitting.

The good news about opiate withdrawal, however, is that it is not life-threatening if one is only withdrawing from opiates. (If one is withdrawing from other drugs as well, then it may be life-threatening).

Some common symptoms of withdrawal include:

  • A runny nose
  • Teary eyes
  • Muscle aches and pains
  • Cramping in the abdominals
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Hot and cold sweats
  • Low energy
  • Irritability and agitation
  • Anxiety
  • Insomnia

Usually, the symptoms of opiate addiction last anywhere from a week to a month.

The first phase of withdrawal will take place around 12 hours after your last use. The withdrawal symptoms will be at their peak on days 3-5, and then the following days and weeks symptoms will persist but improve.

7. Preventing Opiate Addiction

So, what can you do to prevent opiate addiction from happening in the first place?

As we said earlier, most people who become addicted to opiates have no intention of abusing them. They simply want something that will alleviate their pain.

Normally, a doctor will prescribe a patient opiates as a short-term solution for pain relief. When the effects start to wear off or the prescription expires, the person will often go back to the doctor and ask for more.

Doctors now know the dangers of long-term opiate use, so more often then not, they won’t prescribe another dose. This will lead people to turn to illegal means of obtaining the substances.

So, how do we break this cycle?

If you or someone you know is dealing with chronic pain, it’s important to know that there are many other treatments available for pain relief. Therefore, it’s important to talk to your doctor about switching to pain medications that are less addictive.

And, if you are someone who possesses high-risk factors for developing an addiction, it may be best to avoid opiates altogether. Talk to your doctor about your risk factors and discuss with them alternative methods for dealing with your pain.

8. Seeking Help

If you spot the signs of dependency in you or a loved one, it’s important to know that effective treatment for opiate addiction exists.

The first step is to stop taking the drug and start the withdrawal process.

If, however, you feel like this is something you’ll need help with, you should seek out treatment. This may come in the form of inpatient rehab, outpatient rehab, or counseling.

Addicted to Painkillers?: What to Do Next

This article should have given you a good idea of what opiate addiction is all about.

The most important takeaway from this article should be that anyone can become addicted to opiates. While there are risk factors that make someone more susceptible, people from all walks of life have become addicted to the drug.

The other very important thing to remember is that treatment exists for those who have an addiction to painkillers.

To learn more about the different treatment options available, contact us today.

Article Reviewed by Dr. Keerthy Sunder, MD, DFAPA

Dr. Keerthy Sunder, MD, DFAPADr. Keerthy Sunder, MD is an accomplished and internationally recognized expert in the field of addiction. He has earned diplomates from the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology, the American Board of Addiction Medicine, and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.