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When Helpful Medications become a Destructive Addiction

Page Overview

Prescription painkillers offer life-saving pain relief to millions. Without these medications, individuals in debilitating or chronic pain would not be able to function. Some battle this pain frequently based on certain activities or disorders, while many have constant pain. The pain takes a significant toll – just enduring and managing it physically, psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually as it saps much energy and requires focus and attention to continually push it down. But the pain also hinders life, as just getting out of bed becomes difficult, let alone walking, sitting for extended periods at a desk, and the physical activities of life become a chore while enjoyable stress-relieving physical recreations are sadly eliminated. Normal living is gone – until the pain medication kicks in. But while beneficial and life-reviving for many, when abused, prescription opioids can sadly lead to an addiction more destructive than the actual pain syndrome itself.

Many Addictions Start as Pain Relief from a Doctor

Prescription painkillers are used for different types of pain. Significant sports injuries or pain from a fall or accident require immediate medical attention and pain relief – most commonly from opioids. Injuries that require surgery, rest, or rehabilitation are also often treated with prescription opioids, at least in the beginning.

Individuals who struggle with chronic pain feel stuck, desperate, and hopeless. When they finally find relief through opioids, it completely changes their outlook on life. Opioids like oxycodone (Oxycontin), hydrocodone (Vicodin), oxymorphone (Opana), and hydromorphone (Dilaudid) are commonly prescribed for both acute and chronic pain.

Young people are particularly vulnerable for prescription painkiller overuse and addiction for several reasons:

  • They don’t always fully comprehend the potency or addiction potential of these medications.
  • They have immature stress and emotion management skills and pain meds become part of their coping tool kit.
  • They have witnessed poor stress management or role modeling by parents, friends, and siblings for using medications irresponsibly.
  • They are products of our impatient microwave society which always desires a quick-fix or has a self-centered “do-what-feels-good” mentality.
  • Their bodies and minds are not fully developed and the medications can have a greater impact on them than adults.
  • They don’t tolerate the withdrawal effects if they become physically dependent and pop more pills to relieve the withdrawal.
  • The doctors prescribing assumed the patient understood the ramifications and didn’t educate enough or institute strong enough safeguards when prescribing.
  • A younger person’s faster metabolism occasionally requires higher doses than normal so they increase their dose on their own without the doctor’s knowledge or approval.

The elderly are also at risk for prescription painkiller abuse and dependence. The elderly are at risk largely because:

  • They do not understand the addictive dangers of prescription opioid painkiller use, especially the newer more potent pain meds.
  • They may get confused (because of age and/or the cognitive side effects of the opioids) and take more medications than prescribed.
  • They are on so many different medications already it is hard to keep track of what to take and when.
  • Because of their slower metabolism and less efficient liver and kidneys that break down the meds, the pain meds build up in their bloodstream and stay at a higher level longer than a younger person.
  • Their aging bodies are more sensitive to medications so the meds are more potent.
  • Unless the older loved one was an addict, friends and family members don’t realize these opioids are a potential danger and are not on the lookout for their older, loving, and respected relative actually becoming an addict.

Fear of Detox

If a person has true chronic pain and needs pain medications daily to function, they usually become physically dependent on the medications. But physical dependence is different than addiction. Click here for a good description of the key differences between pain patients and addicts. When someone has become physically dependent on opioids, stopping the pills means facing withdrawal symptoms. Any time a person has progressed to dependence on opioids, even if this occurs from regular, as-prescribed use and not addiction, their body must go through withdrawal from the substance. This will be less severe in individuals who have used only for a short time, while some people coming off prescription painkillers don’t even know they are going through withdrawal – they just feel sick and achy for a few days.

For those who know they are physically dependent and will go through withdrawal symptoms, stopping opioids can be scary, and unfortunately, this fear of detox keeps many opiate addicts from getting the help they need to recover. Detoxing from opiates is much like spending a few days sick with a severe flu mixed with periodic panic attacks. It’s not fun, it is uncomfortable, but it is NOT life-threatening and it is relatively short-lived, lasting about 7 days.

Doctor Shopping

It starts as a real honest need for pain relief and progressively slips into a pit of lies and deceit. The person starts to like the way the pills make them feel, and soon they find themselves taking more and more of the medication. When someone is on prescription painkillers and they start taking more pills than prescribed, they are starting down the path of addiction – losing control of the pills, and the need for pills now controlling them. Then they realize they can’t stop or cut back, even if they try. They need more pills. The person might get caught abusing and over-using the medications, or their doctor will not prescribe more pills even though they are out and it’s too early for a prescription refill.

So, the person will “doctor shop,” jumping from doctor to doctor, from pharmacy to pharmacy, presenting with severe pain that needs an immediate prescription. Lying or omitting the truth about opioid over-use is one of the first telltale signs that someone’s prescription opiate use has turned into an addiction. Doctor shopping, “losing a prescription,” “misplacing the bottle of pills,” “someone must have taken them who was addicted,” and other manipulations to get more pills are common addiction-hiding tactics.

Symptoms of opiate detox include:
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Abdominal cramping
  • Diarrhea
  • Goose bumps
  • Dilated pupils
  • Lethargy
  • Insomnia
  • Anxiety
  • Irritability
  • Muscle aches

Many addicts who consider the decision to stop using opioids don’t realize help is available and effective to minimize these withdrawal symptoms and provide physical and psychological comfort during prescription opioid detox. Supportive care, plenty of rest, healthy food, encouragement, prayer, worship and meditative music, and exercise all help the process go more smoothly. Thankfully, many medications ease the distressing symptoms and speed up the detox process. Read more here about the detox process and common medications that can be used.

Shame and Guilt

Prescription drug abuse and addiction is so common, yet it is still such a taboo subject with so much stigma attached. People don’t talk about it and they certainly don’t want to admit they or a loved one has a problem with it. There is much shame and guilt associated with this type of addiction, especially when it stems from real prescriptions for real pain relief among otherwise upstanding citizens.

The person feels like they are letting their loved ones down, they are ruining their own future, they’ve crossed a line and they can never go back. This is accentuated for those hard-working, upstanding citizens who had an adverse circumstance requiring an opioid, and the medication use spiraled for any of a number of reasons. All their life they were against addictions and might have looked at addicts as weak, but here they are, now an addict. This embarrassment and shame only makes the problem worse and fuels the fear that someone will uncover this hideous secret. Sadly, keeping the addiction in the dark allows more lies and secrecy to worsen it and pushes away God’s healing power of allowing light to come in when people talk about the issue and get help in all 3 spheres: Mind, Body, and Spirit.

As a person begins to lose control over their opioid dependence and they begin to abuse and use their substance more and more, their legal ways of getting medications become limited and dry up. Now with prescription drug databases, professionals become aware of doctor shopping more quickly and can take action to stop it. Rather than get caught, someone seeking opioids to satisfy an addiction will turn to illegal options. Some steal pills from family, friends, or neighbors. They order from a black market company online. They might buy pills “on the street.” Others give up on getting prescription painkillers and transition to heroin, a cheaper opioid, or other street drugs to give them the high they desire. Others might become desperate and resort to robbing a pharmacy or clinic that stocks opioids. Now we see the characteristics of drug addiction being magnified and the addict seems truly powerless over their addiction and needs intervention.

Guard Your Medicine Cabinet

Loved ones and friends need to keep their prescription opioids safe and we should all put these simple practices into place in order to remove the temptation for our kids, parents, friends, and other loved ones who might be craving prescription painkillers for themselves or to sell to others. Most importantly, keep medications in a safe place, locked up or hidden where they can’t be easily found. Secondly, if you need to keep you pain meds in your medicine cabinet, when visitors or relatives are coming over, regardless of how well you know them, move your opioids to a hidden location. Last, if you no longer need the medications, get rid of them. It is common to have pills left over after an injury or illness and if not disposed of properly, these can easily get into the wrong hands. Take your unwanted medications to a safe drop off spot such as a police station. Visit the Department of Justice webpage for more information about National Prescription Drug Take Back sites near you.

Signs to Look for in your Loved One

Keep in mind that prescription opioid abuse hits many people from all walks of life. Be aware of the possibility that your loved one who is on prescription painkiller medication could become not just physically dependent on them, but also addicted to them. Watch for the following signs, and get help if you suspect anything.

Signs of opiate addiction:

  • Acute use, under the influence
  • Constricted pupils, groggy, euphoric, itching, dry mouth, flushed skin, slower breathing, nodding off, slurred speech<
  • Drop in grades or work performance
  • Unexplained absences from normal commitments
  • Increased secrecy
  • Moodiness
  • Confusion
  • Poor concentration
  • Withdrawal symptoms – nausea, sweats, runny nose, diarrhea, goose bumps, edginess, big dilated pupils
  • Constipation
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Change in friends
  • Not engaging in usual their usual activities
  • Deterioration in physical appearance or hygiene
  • Change in finances, either needing loans or having more money than their job provides
  • Aggression
  • Poor decision making
  • Increased lame excuses or explanations that don’t add up
  • Lying or withholding information
  • Withdrawing from family and friends or more isolative
  • Visiting multiple doctors for same issues
  • “Losing” prescriptions frequently
  • Taking higher doses than prescribed
  • Life becoming more difficult

Education about Prescribed Medications

There comes a time in nearly everyone’s life when they need to take prescription medication for a dental procedure, same day surgery, or an accident. Opioid addiction can happen to you too if you are careless about taking the medication and aren’t managing the stressors in your life in a mature way. The best way to prevent opioid addiction is education about prescribed meds, learn about side effects and dangers of medications, and only use them as directed. If you have any doubts about how the medications are affecting you, or if you crave the pills or are tempted to take more than prescribed, contact your doctor immediately. It’s best to take action right away to stop prescription drug abuse progression than to wait and see if it gets better. It seldom gets better on its own, and intentional early intervention physically, psychologically, and spiritually is always better.

It’s Never too Late for Help

If you are or a loved one is one of the almost five million people in the U.S. who will abuse opioid medications this year, you’re ashamed to draw attention to yourself or your drug use habits. But if you truly need help because you are addicted, waiting will only make things worse. You never know when a high will be your last. Opioids are easy to overdose on, and deaths from opioid overdose have increased drastically in the past decade. According to the Centers for Disease Control, opioids killed more than 28,000 people in 2014, more than any other year on record. 2014 sadly was the first year when deaths from prescription opioid overdoses outnumbered heroin overdose deaths.

There is hope and many wonderful chapters of your life still to be written. God is a master of great comebacks and redemption stories and He has one for you. It’s time to stop the addiction and receive lasting healing. The best treatment for an opioid addiction is a customized rehab program that keeps you away from the substance, helps you through the detox and withdrawal process, incorporates behavioral modification counseling, and provides in-depth therapy with a focus on renewal and transformation by bringing God’s power and Biblical life management principles from a Christian perspective. The right program will allow you to get past the guilt and shame, and become the person God designed you to be.