Widespread Prescription Pain Pill Addiction

Devastating Impact of Pain Pill Addiction

Currently, there is a deadly, growing epidemic of prescription pain pill abuse.  While many people use painkillers for legitimate medical purposes, the misuse and abuse of these pills has become a growing cause for concern.  The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports an unprecedented rise in prescription pill abuse, which mirrors a 300% increase in the sales of these painkillers since 1999.  To put this number into perspective, the CDC states that “enough prescription painkillers were prescribed in 2010 to medicate every American adult around-the-clock for one month.”   The report goes on to note 12 million people reported non-medical use of pain pills in 2010, with nearly 15,000 people dying every year from overdoses involving prescription painkillers.


While pain pills serve the purpose of alleviating pain from a wide variety of conditions, they also produce a euphoric effect that can be highly addictive.   Prescription painkillers, such as Oxycontin, Vicadin, and Hydrocodone, are opioids that work on the same receptors as heroin.  Patients who are prescribed pain pills for legitimate reasons are not immune to their highly addictive nature, though if they use them as prescribed they are less likely to develop addiction.  These patients are advised to adhere to prescribed uses closely,  as well as to store these strong medications in a way that makes them inaccessible to others who might abuse them.  More than 3 out of 4 people who misuse prescription pain pills are using medications prescribed for someone else.   The most common way for people to gain access to prescription painkillers is from a family member.  The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports nearly 1 in 12 high school seniors have used Vicodin for non-medical purposes, and 1 in 20 have misused Oxycontin.


Misconceptions about the safety of these pills, because they are prescribed, has contributed to this growing problem.  Increased availability has also been a factor.  In order to prevent prescription pill abuse and help those who are already struggling with prescription pill addiction, greater awareness is needed on the part of prescribing doctors, patients, and the general population.  In January, Vermont governor Peter Shumlin devoted his entire annual State of the State address to this very topic, referring to a “full-blown heroin crisis” in his state.  “In every corner of our state, heroin and opiate drug addiction threatens us,” he said.


Most states, including Texas, have now enacted some form of legislation in response to escalating opioid abuse and overdose statistics.  With heroin use on the rise, and many heroin users reporting use of prescription painkillers prior to first use of heroin, this problem takes on  new layers of risk to public health.  Heroin use, particularly intravenous injection, carries additional risks for communicable diseases.


Signs of Painkiller / Opiate Addiction

When a person uses prescription painkillers as prescribed and only for the purposes of relieving pain, they are much less likely to develop dependence.  Use of pain pills that goes beyond prescribed dosages or for purposes other than relief of pain is opiate abuse.  Such “other” purposes might include wanting to experience the euphoria opiates can induce or wanting to alleviate anxiety.  If a person experiences symptoms of withdrawal upon stopping the drug or requires greater amounts to produce the same results, this is a sign chemical dependency is setting in.  Compulsive behavior aimed at attaining the drug, experiencing cravings, and continuing to use despite negative consequences (such as legal, employment, and/or relationship problems) are red flags for addiction.  If a person is going to more than one doctor in order to obtain prescriptions, this can also indicate an abusive pattern.


Treatment for Pain Pill / Opiate Abuse

Medications, such as Suboxone (buprenorphine + naloxone), can assist chemically dependent opioid users in the process of detoxifying from the drug by gradually stepping-down levels of opioids in the body and curbing cravings.  In some instances, Suboxone can be used for long-term maintenance therapy.  However, addiction is a multi-dimensional condition.  Beyond physical dependence, there are psychological aspects that need to be addressed to sustain lasting rehabilitation.  Opiates are tied to the pleasure center of the brain, which impacts a person’s motivations and the identification of stimuli that produce rewards.  Excessive use of opiates effectively hijacks this natural reward system in the brain, directing disproportionate and unhealthy levels of thought and behavior toward the goal of obtaining the opiate-reward.  Therapeutic approaches, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy, can facilitate awareness around the patterns of addictive thought and behavior that have developed around this dysfunctional reward system, replacing them with healthier thoughts, behaviors, and reward mechanisms.  Chemical dependency education, relapse prevention awareness & techniques, and the development of strong social support are all important facets of lasting recovery from addiction.

If you or your loved one is struggling with opiate addiction, there are many treatment options available to you.  It’s important to talk with a professional who can assess the problem and develop a treatment plan that meets your unique needs.