Painkiller addiction is an increasing problem in our society, and it’s certainly receiving more media attention than ever before. There’s a lack of understanding about the dangers of prescription painkillers—opioid drugs that are both extremely powerful and addictive.
Many people are prescribed painkillers for legitimate purposes like chronic pain or serious surgeries, then unknowingly become addicted. Prescription drug abuse is far too common. People from all walks of life become addicted to painkillers: kids raiding their parents medicine cabinets, recreational drug users experimenting with new highs, people in business suits who appear to have everything under control in their lives.
For some people, addiction is a product of chronic abuse. But, other users simply take their prescribed opioid painkillers for longer than is needed. In either case, if a user becomes physically dependent upon the drug, they’ll find that quitting painkillers is much more difficult than they imagined.
The Painkiller Epidemic
In the United States, painkiller addiction is a problem so serious that it’s become an epidemic. With opioid abuse, there’s a very real risk of death. More people in the U.S. die each year from drug overdoses than car crashes, and opioids play the largest role in the death toll. At least half of all U.S. opioid overdose deaths involve a prescription opioid.
Nearly 15,000 people die every year of overdoses involving prescription painkillers.
In 2014, almost 2 million Americans abused or were dependent on prescription opioids.
Since 1999, sales of prescription painkillers have quadrupled, though there hasn’t been an overall change in the amount of pain Americans report.
Effects of Painkillers on the Body
Most painkillers are opioids—derived from the Asian opium poppy plant—which means they affect your body similarly to heroin:
- dilated pupils
- dry mouth
- nausea, vomiting
- warm flush on the skin
- feeling of heaviness
- slow reaction time
- slurred speech
- foggy mental state
- loss of appetite
- slowed breathing and heart rate
Because opioids are so powerful, a user quickly develops a tolerance to the drug. In order to produce the same effect, the user needs higher doses of the drug, a more potent drug, or a more effective route of administration—like snorting or injecting the drug.
With chronic use of opioid painkillers, the body needs the drug in order to function and feel normal. This is known as physical dependence. Like with heroin abuse, if the user doesn’t get more of the drug, he or she will experience withdrawal symptoms.
Effects of Painkillers on the Brain
Opioid drugs decrease pain perception and increase pain tolerance by activating the opioid receptors in the brain. This can produce feelings of euphoria. Our opioid receptors are also activated in situations that help our bodies to survive—like when you’re exercising or under extreme physical distress and your body needs to push through the pain.
However, the painkilling effect produced by prescription painkillers is synthetic and significantly more intense. These drugs act upon the brain’s reward center—providing an enormous, synthetic reward that confuses the brain’s ability to find pleasure in natural rewards like food or sex. This is how opioid drugs can start a cycle of addiction and eventually become more important than all other concerns in a person’s life.
Because the opioid receptors are located at the brain stem, opioid drugs also depress the central nervous system in higher doses. They essentially slow down the body’s automatic processes (like breathing), placing a user in serious jeopardy as they increase dosage. Overdose is a major, immediate risk, but there are also serious long term effects with painkiller abuse.
Symptoms of Painkiller Withdrawal
If your body has developed a dependence on opioids, you can experience a variety of withdrawal symptoms when you try to quit painkillers. Your symptoms will range from mild to severe, based on the history of your opioid use. Withdrawal symptoms can include:
- muscle twitching, pain, or spasms
- vomiting, diarrhea
- increased appetite
- difficulty sleeping
It can take up to 10 days for your body to completely flush itself of opioid painkillers.
When you quit painkillers, there can also be psychological withdrawal symptoms like depression, anxiety, irritability, nightmares, and cravings. Sometimes these symptoms are extremely intense, and often last much longer than the physical withdrawal symptoms of quitting painkillers.
How to Quit Painkillers
If you want to quit painkillers, you should never attempt to do it on your own. Quitting “cold turkey” can be extremely dangerous, and may even cost you your life.
You should always consult with your doctor before you quit painkillers. They can help you come up with a plan to end your addiction safely and successfully.
In general, it’s best to attend a medical detoxification facility to quit painkillers. The medical staff will monitor your health as you detox, and can prescribe you medication that will help ease the symptoms of withdrawal.
There are some medications, such as Suboxone, that are prescribed to help people quit painkillers and find freedom from opioid dependence. Medications like these will eliminate withdrawal symptoms, while also blocking the effects of opioids on your body should you take them.
Safe, medical detox is crucial, but it’s only the first step to quitting painkillers.
Why Inpatient Rehab is Important
After you detox, inpatient rehab is the best option to begin your recovery and healing process. By checking into an inpatient facility, you’re placed in a safe, controlled environment where you can continue to cope with withdrawal symptoms. Most inpatient stays range from 30 days to 3 months. Statistically, longer stays in treatment are associated with longer-term sobriety.
Treatment can help you learn to adjust to a life without painkillers. Most treatment facilities offer addiction therapy in both group and individual sessions. They’ll teach skills to help you handle cravings and avoid relapse. Cognitive-behavioral therapy can help you learn new techniques for managing pain and stress.
Any underlying issues that you might have like trauma, mental illness, behavioral disorders, or family problems will be addressed with the guidance of qualified therapists. They may also offer holistic therapy like massage or acupuncture.
Can’t I Quit Painkillers Without Going to Rehab?
It is possible to quit painkillers with the help of outpatient treatment centers—non-residential facilities or clinics that only offer treatment services during the daytime. However, it’s generally not the best method.
Some clinics give out Suboxone to people who are trying to quit painkillers, but there’s a high potential to misuse or abuse the drug without the constant medical supervision of inpatient treatment. Most people need more support while they transition to an entirely drug-free life, that doesn’t include painkillers or Suboxone.
If you want to quit painkillers, it is possible. A good support system is crucial. As you try to quit painkillers, you should ask for help when you need it. Friends and family members who do not abuse drugs should be made aware of your attempts to quit painkillers. Support groups, group therapy, counseling, and other types of treatment can help you stay off painkillers for good.