Why is it that some people can take a prescription painkiller like OxyContin or Percocet after an accident or injury and stop taking the drug a couple weeks later without a problem while others develop a devastating addiction?
It’s a question that researchers have been trying to answer for a long time about all addictive substances. When it comes to prescription drug dependence specifically, a new study published in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings may shed some light on some of the risk factors for an increased likelihood of developing an addiction to a prescribed medication even when it is only prescribed for a short period of time.
Drugs and Cigarettes
It likely comes as no surprise, but researchers found that a history of drug abuse as well as a current smoking habit were linked to an increased risk of extended use of addictive prescription medications that were meant to only be used for the short-term.
Dr. W. Michael Hooten was lead author of the study. He and his team tracked 300 patients who were given a short-term, first-time prescription for an opiate painkillers like OxyContin, Vicodin, codeine, or methadone. More than 25 percent of participants ultimately continued to take these short-term prescriptions for an extended period of time: 21 percent continued taking the medication for up to three or four months, and an additional 6 percent continued use of the drugs for more than four months, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services.
Says Hooten: “Many people will suggest [painkiller abuse is] actually a national epidemic. More people now are experiencing fatal overdoses related to opioid use than compared to heroin and cocaine combined.”
Hooten also says that it’s important for patients to “recognize the potential risks associated with these medications. I encourage use of alternative methods to manage pain, including non-opioid analgesics or other non-medication approaches.
“The next step in this research is to drill down and find more detailed information about the potential role of dose and quantity of medication prescribed. It is possible that higher dose or greater quantities of the drug with each prescription are important predictors of longer-term use.”
What You Need to Know
Most people will be able to take a short-term prescription for an opiate medication as prescribed without experiencing a problem. A few people, however, will develop cravings for the drug as well as a tolerance (e.g., the need for a higher dose in order to experience the same initial pain relief) – the defining characteristics of addiction. How do you know if it’s happening to you?
There are some side effects that are commonly experienced when someone first starts taking an opiate painkiller – fatigue, constipation, dizziness, nausea, and vomiting – and if these continue or worsen then contact your doctor. Otherwise, it is recommended that patients who take painkillers should avoid drinking alcohol or driving when they are under the influence of the medication as both of these can have dangerous consequences.
It’s also important to note that your painkiller dosage was chosen based on your health history, weight, other medications in use, and other factors. Any use of your prescription outside of the doctor’s orders is considered abuse and is therefore putting your health at risk. Any of the following behaviors may risk overdose or the development of a dependence upon your medication:
- Crushing the pills before taking them
- Snorting the pills or dissolving them in water (after they have been crushed) and then injecting them
- Taking the pills with alcohol or in combination with other drugs like prescription sedatives
- Continuing to take the pills despite the lack of medical need (e.g., the pain issue has resolved itself but you are still taking the medication and/or going to multiple doctors in order to get multiple prescriptions or filling a single script at multiple pharmacies)
All of these choices can put you at risk of overdose – and they can put you at risk of addiction.
When It’s Time to Seek Help
If you believe that your use of your prescription is approaching or at dangerous levels, your first step is to discuss the issue with your doctor. If you are merely struggling with physical withdrawal symptoms when you miss a dose or if you are uncomfortable at the dose you are taking, it may be a relatively easy fix. A slow step down off the medication can help you to be drug-free within a few weeks with minimal withdrawal symptoms – as long as you don’t experience cravings. If you have a tolerance and cravings too, and you have the inability to stop taking the drugs on your own for any length of time, professional detox and treatment are recommended.
In most cases, painkiller dependence is more likely to develop when a patient is given high-dose prescription opiates to manage round-the-clock, severe pain. This study focused on short-term usage of painkillers (e.g., after a dental surgery or while healing from a broken bone) which, unfortunately, can be just as deadly if patients don’t know the risks and inadvertently make dangerous choices with their prescription.
If someone you know is abusing their opiate prescription and unable to stop on their own, help them to connect to a treatment program that will not only help them to stop taking the medication safely but also arm them with the tools they need to be successful in recovery for the long-term. Call The Recovery Village at Palmer Lake now for more information.