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Painkiller Addiction: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

We hear it all too often: A high school student gets injured and, after surgery, is prescribed painkillers; he later becomes addicted. A young woman gets her wisdom teeth out and is given Percocet for the pain; she becomes tolerant to the pills’ effects and needs more to feel better. A teen finds a bottle of OxyContin in his parents’ medicine cabinet and brings them to a party; he or a friend begins using them on a regular basis. A college student struggles with stress migraines; her friend gives her the rest of a Vicodin prescription and after a couple weeks of use, she becomes dependent on the pills to function. A person with an anxiety or depressive disorder begins using painkillers long-term to ease their distress.

These situations are not uncommon. Among the millions of painkiller users in the United States, the majority cite “pain relief” as the primary cause of their opioid misuse. They had an injury, an illness, or an operation and grew addicted to their prescription pills. Oftentimes, it is not their prescription at all: Close to half of those who abuse painkiller drugs obtain them for free from a family member or friend.

While it’s difficult to know exactly how many people in the nation are hooked on prescription painkillers, recent research estimates that approximately 92 million Americans used prescription opioids in the year 2015. About 11.5 of these users had abused or misused the drugs (took them without a prescription or in ways other than prescribed). Just under two million users were clinically diagnosed with an opioid use disorder, which is more commonly known as a painkiller addiction.

When a person is addicted to painkillers, he or she becomes physically and psychologically dependent on the drugs. It happens after repeated use. The person builds up a physical tolerance to the pills and eventually requires more and more to achieve the same effects. Chemical changes have happened within the brain: the opioid, pain-killing drugs have re-wired the parts of the brain responsible for mood and pleasure, convincing the user that he or she needs drugs to feel better, to feel good, even to feel able to function. Without painkillers, the user is, ironically, in pain. He or she takes painkillers for relief.

Painkiller addiction is a vicious cycle, and cannot always be defeated alone. If you believe your loved one is addicted to pain medication, it is vital to seek help. Opioid drug addiction is a serious epidemic, with painkillers being a leading gateway into illicit heroin abuse. And according to the most recent Surgeon General’s report, nearly one American dies every 19 minutes from a painkiller or heroin overdose.

As a concerned loved one, the first and most important thing you can do now is look for the symptoms of an opioid addiction. These may be behavioral, physical, or psychological signs. Is your loved one feeling particularly drowsy, unmotivated, or fatigued? Have you noticed a change in his or her priorities, performance, interests, or friend groups? Has your loved one been more isolated, depressed, or defensive than usual? Have you spotted any outward changes in appearance (e.g. “pinpoint” pupils)?

One of the most tell-tale signs of a painkiller addiction is an increase in dosages and drug-seeking habits. Your loved one may be taking greater amounts of a prescription than before, believing that more pills are needed to ease the pain. He or she may have also upped the frequency of those dosages. “Doctor shopping” is another telling sign of painkiller addiction: When the pills run out, does your loved one double-up on pharmacies or visit multiple doctors in hopes of refilling prescriptions? Does he or she spend too much time using, recovering, and obtaining the drugs? Amidst these compulsive behaviors, have other priorities (such as work or school) gotten lost?

If you’ve answered “yes” to any of these questions, if you’ve recognized any of these signs in someone you love (even if you’re not confident it’s a painkiller addiction), it is ever-important to ask for help. Your doctor, a clinician, or an addiction specialist can evaluate the extent of your loved one’s prescription drug use, and help you decide if longer-term painkiller addiction treatment is the right next step.

Fact is, painkiller addiction can be detrimental to the body and the mind, especially for users who are already experiencing withdrawal symptoms. Trying to quit without the help of professionals can lead to greater restlessness, insomnia, physical pain, vomiting, and rigorous and repeated hot/cold sweats. Quitting “cold turkey” or short-term detoxing, without the assistance of a long-term rehab program, can also contribute to a greater chance of relapse.

Research shows that the chances of beating a painkiller addiction are best with a combined approach to drug treatment: detoxification and long-term behavioral therapy. Detoxification physically rids the body of the painkiller drugs, and often is supported by medications like methadone, buprenorphine, or naloxone. This detox stage also helps ease or manage any withdrawal symptoms that arise.

The behavioral, longer-term addiction treatment program is what paves the path for long-term recovery, especially in the cases of adolescents and young adults. Long-term painkiller addiction treatment helps users to not only get sober, but also to stay sober and live sober through a variety of integrated therapy models, counseling sessions, and learned coping mechanisms.

In a long-term rehab facility like Turnbridge, those in addiction recovery get to the root of their drug problems. We encourage them to determine what initially caused their drug abuse, and further how to prevent it from surfacing again. Residents also learn how to deal with drug cravings, resist temptations, and function normally in life without the blanket or comfort of drugs. They also learn how to build new and meaningful relationships, and are given the opportunity to do so through our sober living program.

You can help your loved one put his or her painkiller problem to rest, and determine the treatment that he or she needs to stay sober for life. By doing so, you can save a life. You can help your loved one to recognize and rebuild a life worth living. Please do not hesitate to call Turnbridge at 877-581-1793 to learn more about our prescription drug treatment programs for adolescents and young adults.