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Understanding Why Painkillers Become So Addictive

Chronic pain impacts over a quarter of Americans. While many people manage their discomfort with over-the-counter pills, some chronic pain is treated by doctors with short-term prescriptions for painkillers. Narcotic medications, like OxyContin or Vicodin, are opioids and thus highly addictive. Even when they’re prescribed, you are at risk of dependence or even becoming addicted to pain pills if you’re not careful.

While you should absolutely trust your doctor’s best judgment, it’s important to understand the dangers of painkillers and why they are so addictive.

Why Are Painkillers Addictive?

Most prescription painkillers are opioids, including oxycodone, codeine, morphine and fentanyl. These drugs all produce a comparable effect due to their similar chemical makeup. Opioids reduce the body’s sensitivity to pain while simultaneously releasing a euphoric rush of dopamine, the body’s feel-good chemical.

The reason painkillers are addictive is that the feel-good sensations produced by prescription drugs don’t last. Many people fall into a dangerous cycle where they no longer take pills for pain, but to feel that euphoric sensation. This repeated chemical reaction can teach your brain to seek out painkillers to feel good or even just to feel normal.

How Opioid Addiction Occurs

Opioid addiction generally occurs in three steps:

  1. Tolerance: The more you take prescription opioids, the more your brain adapts to them. Tolerance means your body requires stronger pills or more frequent doses to achieve the same results.
  2. Dependence: With repeated use, the part of your brain responsible for that rush of dopamine mistakenly learns that it needs painkillers to function normally. When you try to stop taking painkillers, unpleasant withdrawal symptoms may kick in, like body aches, fever, chills, sweating and vomiting.
  3. Addiction: Addiction crosses the line from physical dependence to an emotional need for painkillers. You begin to feel uncontrollable urges to take the drug even if it’s causing you serious problems in your personal or professional life.

Sign and Symptoms of Prescription Drug Addiction

Here are some of the most common signs of prescription drug misuse:

  • Preoccupation with your medication, such as when you can take your next dose or whether you have enough
  • Using painkillers for a long time
  • Taking different amounts than prescribed
  • Going to multiple doctors for the same prescription
  • Obtaining painkillers from nonmedical sources, such as the internet or family members
  • Buying or stealing another person’s prescription
  • Taking medication because you like how it feels rather than for pain relief
  • Feeling strong, physical cravings
  • Becoming defensive or irritated when asked about your use of painkillers
  • Not acting like yourself, such as a showing lack of personal hygiene or feeling moodier than usual

Preventing Painkiller Addiction

If your doctor prescribes a narcotic medication, be sure to take it as directed. However, keep in mind that over-prescribing can happen. It’s essential to do your own research and speak with your doctor or pharmacist to prevent painkiller addiction.

Dependence on painkillers can occur in as few as five days. Arm yourself with information and take charge of your health.

When to Get Help for Narcotic Abuse

Regardless of who you are and whether you have a history of addiction, it’s far too easy to misuse painkillers. The key to preventing and overcoming addiction is honesty. If you recognize that you or a loved one struggles with any of the signs of painkiller misuse, it’s time to get help. Talk to your doctor. You can also call a local drug addiction treatment center like Gateway Foundation.

The earlier your reach out for help, the better your chances at a full recovery. Contact us today to learn more.

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