One of the major health problems that plague the world is an addiction to painkillers. According to the National Institutes of Health, it affects 2 million Americans – and 15 million people throughout the globe.
Just like alcohol and illegal drugs, addiction to this substance can lead to profound social and economic impacts. As it is responsible for about 20,000 deaths every year, it has become the leading cause of deaths in American adults under the age of 50.
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Opioids: Painkillers that Promote Addiction
Opioids are prescription medications that work on the nervous system. They are prescribed for serious and chronic pain. More than just providing pain relief, this type of drug can bring about pleasurable feelings as well.
The commonly-prescribed (and abused) opioids in the market include:
Another type of illegal drug, heroin, is an addicting opioid substance as well. While most users take these orally, some aim to ‘intensify’ their experiences by snorting or injecting the opioid.
Opioid addiction occurs when a person develops a compulsion to use this substance despite having no valid medical reason to do so. Such could lead to the following tendencies:
- Taking opioids at higher amounts/for a longer time
- Inability to control painkiller use
- No longer performing other more important activities (i.e. work, sleep)
- Spending a lot of time seeking drugs or recovering from its effects
- Performing dangerous activities (i.e. driving, working in construction) while under the influence
- Continued usage of painkillers despite social or legal issues
Depending on your symptoms, your doctor can categorize your addiction as mild, moderate, or severe.
How Opioids Affect the Brain
Even if opioids are used according to the doctor’s recommendations, regular long-term use can still lead to addiction. The risk is further increased when prescription opioids are misused or misdirected.
If taken improperly, opioids could bring about the following manifestations:
- Mental confusion
- Breathing problems
Opioids affect brain chemistry by building drug tolerance. As the brain gets used to the opioids, the same number of drugs no longer produce a pleasurable effect. As such, the addict takes more and more amounts to experience relief. When he/she does decide to stop taking the drug, he/she can develop withdrawal. Symptoms include:
- Cold flashes
- Muscle cramping
- Involuntary leg movements
While most opioid users develop tolerance, not everybody will develop an addiction. In those who do so, the risk of overdose is magnified. For one, the intake of too many opioids can slow and stop breathing, which is fatal if not addressed immediately.
While opioids are fatal enough of its own, combining these with other drugs such as benzodiazepines can further increase overdose risk.
What Causes Opioid Addiction?
Experts believe opioid addiction to be a result of genetic, lifestyle, and environmental factors.
The body produces its own type of opioids that fit thoroughly into their respective receptors. These help create the endogenous opioid system that manages reward, pain, and other addictive behaviors.
Apart from endogenous opioids, exogenous opioids such as painkillers work on these receptors too. Sadly, variations in the OPRM1 gene that creates these opioid receptors can lead to a higher risk of developing an addiction.
A family history of addiction may also contribute to the development of painkiller addiction. Apart from the shared genetic factors, the lifestyles and environments shared by family members could put them at a higher risk for addiction.
While internal factors play a role in painkiller addiction, outside forces have a hand too. Those who have a history of substance abuse, child abuse, and psychiatric disorders have higher chances of developing an addiction. The same risk is seen in people who are impulsive or sensation-seekers.
A person’s environmental circumstances can also contribute to his/her addiction. Those who live in poor and/or rural areas, as well as those with easy access to prescription drugs, are more likely to develop an addiction.
Preventing Opioid Addiction
As mentioned, following the recommended dose can still lead to addiction. As such, patients who are taking opioids need to follow these tips carefully:
- Follow the instructions for taking the medication, as set forth by the physician or pharmacist.
- Don’t change or stop your medications without seeking the advice of your doctor.
- Avoid giving your pills to other people.
- Don’t use drugs that are not for you.
- Don’t take your medications with other drugs unless prescribed by the physician.
- Avoid drinking alcohol while on a painkiller regimen.
- Store your medications in a safe and secure location.
- Throw your unused medications in US-DEA collection sites.
Treating Painkiller Addiction
Treatment for prescription drug addiction usually requires multiple rounds for maximum recovery. These modalities are divided into 2:
1. Behavioral Treatments
This treatment is all about modifying a person’s unhealthy behavior and distorted thinking patterns. It could teach the user strategies on how to resist cravings, as well as cues and clues that could lead to relapse. In certain cases, it can involve incentivizing abstinence.
The most common forms of behavioral treatments are contingency management and cognitive-behavioral therapy. These could take the form of individual, family, or group counseling.
Apart from counseling, certain medications can help reduce the harmful effects of painkiller addiction:
- Methadone. This synthetic opioid affects the same receptors targeted by morphine, heroin, and other opioid drugs. However, it exerts a less-intense result for a longer period.
- Buprenorphine. This partial opioid agonist is a prescription drug that helps reduce cravings. With the development of a month-long injection, it has helped improve adherence amongst many patients.
- Naltrexone. This antagonist keeps opioids from activating receptors. Individuals who find it hard to stick to a regular medication schedule often use this.
- Naloxone. This helps reverse the opioid’s fatal effects on the person’s breathing.
Addiction to painkillers is brought about by a hodgepodge of factors: genes, lifestyle, and the environment. While these may put some people at a disadvantage, the possibility of addiction can be prevented – and treated. With the help of multiple therapies and medications, those with opioid addictions are given a chance to live a better, healthier life.
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