Becoming addicted to pain medication is a disease. This is because the painkillers (e.g. Vicodin, OxyContin, Norco, Hydrocodone) - commonly prescribed by physicians to treat pain - cause a change in your brain chemistry that is not under your control.
Addiction to opioids can lead to fatal overdose. According to the CDC, 15,000 Americans died in 2011 as a result of opioid overdose. This is triple the rate from a decade ago.1 The alarming trend in opioid overdoses has caused the Centers for Disease Control to declare opioid addiction an epidemic.
Physical impact of pain killers
Doctor Clifford Bernstein, a pain management physician and author on Spine-health.com clearly outlines how these pain medications physically affect the body:
- The brain responds to the pain medicine by increasing the number of receptors for the drug, and the nerve cells in the brain stop functioning
- The body stops producing endorphins (the body's natural painkillers) because it is receiving opiates instead
- The degeneration of the nerve cells in the brain causes a physical dependency on an external supply of opiates, and reducing or not taking the pain killers causes a painful series of physical changes, known as withdrawal.
Most people who take opioids for more than 2-4 weeks will develop a tolerance to the medication. Tolerance means patients may need to increase dosage to feel the same effect, and they may go through withdrawal if they stop taking the medication. This is a natural process, and it is not to be confused with addiction.
In his recent blog on the subject, Dr. Ullrich explains: "Pain medication addiction is a more complicated process. It involves manipulative behavior to obtain narcotic medications and a refusal to discontinue a medication even though it is no longer being used for a medical purpose. Some, including those at significant risk of overdosing, will go to multiple doctors to get medications."
The chance of becoming addicted to pain medications is very low if the patient follows the physician's guidelines. People with a personal or family history of addiction have a greater risk of becoming addicted.
Pain killers may actually increase pain
Most people do not know that taking painkillers over a long period of time may in fact increase a patient's sensitivity to pain (hyperalgesia). This happens because long term use of opiate painkillers causes a decrease in your ability to tolerate pain, and an increased sensitivity to pain. When the pain increases, people are often led to believe they need to take higher doses of pain medication than they were on initially.
For those who are addicted to narcotic pain medications, a detoxification program is often needed. Pain killer addiction is a chemical, physical disease, one that requires expert medical treatment in a safe, humane environment.
- "CDC Grand Rounds: prescription Drug Overdoses – a U.S. Epidemic," Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, published Jan. 13, 2012, , accessed Nov. 5, 2012.