By a wide margin the most common form of drug addiction in the United States in painkiller addiction. You may have heard it called “opioid addiction”, or seen it tied in with the “opioid crisis”. That is because abuse of opioid painkillers is the leading cause of painkiller addiction.
But let’s back up and talk about the language we are using to describe painkiller addiction. There is a lot of lingo to painkillers and the abuse of them that you need to know. It starts with understanding how they work and where they come from, as well as how people substitute them with other drugs once the painkillers become harder for them to find.
However, you also have to keep in mind the different ways that painkiller addiction presents itself. Not all painkiller addicts are going to be the shaking, unstable mess you might imagine.
We will start with how painkiller addiction usually starts: With a prescription.
How Painkiller Addiction Starts
You won’t find pill pushers on a street corner dealing in painkillers. Most of the time, people who get addicted to painkillers start by getting them from a pharmacy.
The prescription might start with an injury, though it is just as common to be given out as a preemptive pain reliever for a medical procedure. That means you can go to the dentist for a root canal and get prescribed the same painkillers that people get addicted to every day.
When painkillers are prescribed, they can continuously be prescribed for either as long as the patient reports pain, or until the doctor decides to stop prescribing them. But how does the doctor know when to stop prescribing them? Usually, medical professionals have a relatively certain idea of how long a given procedure might cause a patient pain over time.
Going back to the root canal, for instance, should not cause any pain that lasts longer than three days. Tooth removal can cause pain for a week, sometimes more. But doctors and dentists will prescribe only enough painkillers to last through that time. If the patient comes back asking for more, the doctor or dentist will check to make sure there isn’t any lingering damage.
How to Spot Signs of a Painkiller Addiction
After a person has had a painkiller prescription for a while, they will have trouble functioning as they juggle the pain it was prescribed for alongside the effects of the painkillers. Basically, the painkillers will relieve them and numb a lot of their pain and stress receptors, but once the painkillers wear off, they will feel bad again. This can be the start of a vicious cycle.
How do you spot someone going through this cycle? Well remember: Part of the experience for them is that their state of being is constantly changing. So, look for frequent changes.
Specifically, look for large changes in mood and energy. If a person is getting tired too fast, losing focus, or seems overly tense, those can be warning signs. The physical symptoms will reflect that tension, as they will seem short of breath, have narrow pupils, and loss of appetite.
On a broader scale, you should observe how they spend their free time. Similar to how depressed people can spend a whole day lying in bed thinking negative thoughts and not even notice, painkiller addicts can spend a lot of time trying to get more painkillers with a similar lack of regard for how it cuts into work, recreation, and social time.
That makes it pretty easy to catch them shopping for painkillers, looking around for doctors, and doing other compromising activities that show their interest in painkillers.
And one final note: Look to see if they have multiple painkiller prescriptions from different doctors or different pharmacies. This is a sure sign there is something wrong that does not require you to look at the person themselves or their activities.
Turning a Prescription into a Problem
Let’s talk about how painkillers work for a moment, because it is important for understanding why a doctor or dentist might not prescribe more painkillers even when a patient is in pain.
The most common painkillers for medical procedures, dentistry, and general chronic pain are OxyContin, Vicodin, and Oxycodone. These are all known as “opioid painkillers” because they act on the “opioid receptors” in your body. Opioid receptors receive signals of stress and pain.
That means if you prevent those receptors from receiving signals, you do not feel any pain or stress (in your body, at least). However, those signals do not just go away. They build up. And once the painkillers wear off, a person will be in pain again.
Many doctors prescribe painkillers in smaller amounts than are theoretically required in order to mitigate this. If you take too small of a dose of a painkiller, then you will have your pain partly relieved. That means you are avoiding half of the pain and feeling half of it. When your painkillers wear off, that is when you feel the half that the painkillers were blocking.
In short, the ideal circumstance is that painkillers reduce pain while still allowing your body to process it. But oftentimes what really happens is that it begins that vicious cycle.
We mentioned at the outset that painkillers will sometimes get replaced by other drugs. That is because one of the cheapest (and most addictive) painkillers in the world is fentanyl—the core ingredient of heroin. Most of the homeless heroin addicts you see decorating the streets of the major cities of the United States were probably once ordinary people with a prescription.
But maybe you don’t have a prescription. Maybe you are just using painkillers recreationally. You might even be self-medicating. And of course, it is possible that a loved one of yours is doing those things too. Just remember the vicious cycle that these painkillers put you in.
They are not exactly designed to get you addicted. But they are not designed to protect you from addiction either. So, if you are in trouble, visit New Waters Recovery for more information.