Opioid painkillers are often prescribed to individuals who have experienced a severe injury or have gone had surgery and are experiencing pain afterward. For most people who take them as prescribed, they do not pose a threat. But, when used outside of their recommended dosage, they may become addictive.
Opioids are one of the most commonly prescribed medications in the US. In 2019, there were around 50,000 opioid-involved overdose deaths. This number does include all types of opioids (heroin, fentanyl, and prescription pain medications). When it comes specifically to prescription painkillers, such as OxyContin, Vicodin, or morphine:
- There were 14,139 overdose deaths from prescription opioids in 2019.
- The CDC estimates that the financial burden placed on the US from misuse of prescription opioids is around $78.5 billion per year
- In 2017, it was estimated that 1.7 million Americans were suffering from a prescription opioid use disorder.
- Between 21% and 29% of people with a prescription for chronic pain misuse their specific opioid medication.
- Of those with a prescription, it is estimated that 8%-12% will develop an opioid use disorder.
- Around 5% of individuals with an opioid use disorder will eventually begin to use heroin to achieve those same effects once tolerance has become too high or their prescription has ended.
- 80% of heroin users began with opioid painkillers.
Signs of Use
Opioid medications attach to and stimulate receptors in the brain, decreasing feelings of pain and increasing euphoria. Over time, these receptors rely on prescription opioids to produce these effects and can no longer do so on their own, much less to the degree that medications can. When this happens, the brain may actually induce feelings of pain until more of the drug is used.
It may be increasingly difficult for a person to determine whether they, or their loved one, has a problem with a medication they were prescribed. Signs that can be seen include:
- Extreme Drowsiness
- Small Pupils
- Nodding Off
- Slowed or Shallow Breathing
- Lack of Coordination
- Nausea or Vomiting
The way a person behaves is going to depend on the amount of the opioid within their system and whether or not they are experiencing withdrawal.
- Mood Swings
- Dishonesty or Secrecy
- Problems with work or school
- Legal Complications
- Financial Struggles
- Noticeable Habit Changes
- Doctor Shopping
Long Term Complications
Using prescription opioids for an extended period of time is never recommended, not even by doctors for chronic pain. So, when they are taken outside of their prescribed dose and abused long-term, there are a variety of health complications that may stay with the user, even after use has stopped.
- Lack of personal hygiene
- Possession of drug paraphernalia
- Wearing inappropriate clothing for the weather (such as long sleeves in the summer)
- Having financial struggles (possibly borrowing or stealing money constantly)
- Declining performance at work or school
- Losing interest in things they once enjoyed
- Avoiding loved ones
- Lying or being secretive
- Hanging out with new people in new spots
Recovery is Possible
Dependence or addiction to prescription medications can be scary, especially because people don’t often realize there is a problem until it’s too late and they’re already addicted. Though it may seem helpless, the following success stories show that recovery is very possible and you can live a life free from the constraints of prescription opioids.
Opioid Pain Pill Withdrawal
Prescription pain pill withdrawal may be similar to heroin withdrawal in some cases. Users may experience extreme cravings, and the brain may also increase pain throughout the body to try and prompt a person to use more of the medication since it cannot produce those feelings of pleasure on its own.
Withdrawing from opioids can be a life-threatening experience considering the body has become extremely dependent on the medication. In order to minimize withdrawal symptoms, many people will actually use them once more and overdose. Symptoms usually begin around 24 hours after the last dose was taken. Acute symptoms may only last up to a week, but it is possible that a person may struggle with post-acute symptoms for up to 24 months after that last dose was taken.
Opioid withdrawal often feels similar to having the flu. Symptoms include:
- Nausea or Vomiting
- Lack of Energy/Fatigue
- Shaking or Tremors
- Stomach or Leg Cramps
Treatment for Opioid Pain Pill Abuse
The most critical part of opioid addiction treatment is detoxing safely and ensuring that withdrawal symptoms do not cause a relapse or overdose. It is recommended that individuals detoxing from these medications seek help from medical professionals.
Once detox is complete, they may offer medication-assistance treatment (MAT) to ensure those withdrawal symptoms are taken care of.
- Lofexidine is an FDA-approved, non-opioid medication for treating opioid withdrawal.
- Buprenorphine can reduce cravings as it blocks the activation of opioid receptors.
- Naltrexone also blocks opioid receptors and reduces cravings.
- Clonidine reduces withdrawal symptoms and makes this process a little more comfortable.
- Propranolol reduces anxiety and can help treat other withdrawal symptoms.
There is also evidence that exercise or any activity that can naturally stimulate opioid receptors will help to make the withdrawal process easier. Exercise has a variety of benefits for individuals going through opioid withdrawal, including:
- Reduced Anxiety
- Decrease in Depression
- Decreased Cravings
- Improved Coping and Stress Management
National Opioid Pain Pill Resources
- Center for Disease Control: The CDC provides various opioid-specific resources to educate as well as help find treatment options for those struggling.
- The Opioid Response Network: As a national resource, the Opioid Response Network provides education, training, overdose prevention techniques, and treatment services in all 50 states.