Stephanie Booth The Stir
Let’s say you’re in some pain. Maybe you’re recovering from surgery. Or perhaps it’s due to a medical condition that you simply can’t get a handle on. At some point, you’re going to be offered prescription painkillers. Damn straight, they’ll get rid of your pain. But there can also be a significant — and terrifying — cost.
What cost, you ask? Addiction and even accidental death.
Of course, you never bargain for either — you just want your pain to END already. But women are more likely than men to be prescribed these dangerous drugs, and become dependent on them faster.
Here’s everything you need to know about prescription painkillers, including how to stay safe if you absolutely must take them.
What, exactly, are opioids?
Simply put, they’re drugs that act on your nervous system to alleviate your sense of pain. Heroin is the best-known (and illegal) example. But your doctor can legally prescribe painkillers like oxycodone, hydrocodone, codeine, morphine, and fentanyl for high-pain situations.
Why is addiction to painkillers at an all-time high?
“There really isn’t one thing we can point to as an answer,” says Amy Ronshausen, deputy director of Drug Free America Foundation, Inc. But in the late 1990s, pain started to be categorized as a vital sign, along with blood pressure, temperature, etc. Because of that, doctors felt obligated to do something if a patient indicated he or she had any kind of pain.
“More times than not, that action was and is a prescription for a powerful opioid narcotic,” says Ronshausen. Prescriptions are typically for a 30-day supply, she adds, which is far more than many people need.
Add to the mix “pill mills” (where unethical docs dispense painkillers without an actual medicinal need) and lax state and federal laws, and — boom — you’ve got an epidemic on hand.
But I don’t take ANY medications. Why should I still be wary?
Just because you don’t take any drugs now doesn’t mean you won’t in the future. You could break your leg or have a root canal or have another condition where you’ll need prescription meds. And that means you have a chance of getting addicted.
“Unlike illicit drugs, many individuals who become addicted to opioids started off using them for a legitimate medical reason,” Ronshausen notes. “…We think they’re safe because they come from a doctor, not a drug dealer.”
If you’ve had issues before with alcohol or other drugs, had someone in your family who’s struggled with addiction, or gone through a childhood trauma such as sexual abuse or violence, you’re at a higher risk of becoming addicted to a painkiller.
But not everyone who takes painkillers gets addicted or ODs … right?
True. But take a look at some facts. Drug overdose is the leading cause of accidental death in the US, and prescription painkillers are responsible for most of those — nearly 19,000 in 2014 alone. That’s nearly double the amount of people who died from a heroin OD.
Do you really want to take your chances?
What are the signs of addiction?
“The three main signs are tolerance, obsession, and withdrawal,” notes Paul Hokemeyer, PhD, JD, an addiction, family, and marriage therapist based in Los Angeles, New York City, and Telluride, Colorado.
Let’s break that down.
Tolerance: “You find yourself needing more and more of the drug to get the same baseline of relief,” explains Hokemeyer. “So you start with one pill to manage your knee pain, then find yourself taking more and more.”
Obsession: Just what it sounds like. “You find yourself constantly thinking about the next pill, worrying about running out, and spending time planning to get more,” Hokemeyer says.
Withdrawal: This is the physical and mental difficulty you have when you try to taper down or stop taking the drug, says Hokemeyer. Everyone will experience this differently; symptoms can run the gamut.
“Achy joints, lethargy, lack of appetite, insomnia, feeling spacey, having restless legs,” notes Cali Estes, PhD, founder of The Addictions Coach and The Addictions Academy. “Think about Prince. He was experiencing symptoms of withdrawal when he came off Percocet, reported as ‘flu-like symptoms.'”
So what can I do to stay safe?
“Steer clear of opiates as long as possible,” Hokemeyer advises. That might be easier said than done. Some doctors are too easily manipulated in giving them out, Hokemeyer says, “and too busy to offer other pain management options to their patients.”
Because of that, you’ll need to be proactive. “Empower yourself in everything,” advises Ronshausen. “Don’t be afraid to question your doctor and ask if there are alternatives to using opioids.”
But if your pain is severe and nothing else will relieve it and God knows you’ve tried EVERYTHING, then “take small amounts [of opioids], and ween off as soon as you don’t need them,” advises Estes.
You might even want to enlist the help of a friend or family member to monitor your use and even hold the drugs for you, Hokemeyer says. “This buddy system will not only keep you safe, but give you the human connection that’s so important to dealing with the physical and psychic pain that comes far too frequently in life.”
I’m scared that I’m already hooked on a drug I’m taking. What should I do?
Know that “you are not alone,” Ronshausen says. And be reassured: Your addiction is NOT due to a lack of willpower. Opioids cause a legitimate physical change in your brain. You’ll likely require both medical treatment and counseling to kick them.
Do consult your doctor if you think you have an addiction issue. You can also contact a friend, family member, or organization like Narcotics Anonymous and ask for help.
Contact the team at The Addictions Coach call 1.800.706.0318 to get the help you or a loved one needs.
Image via David Smart/Shutterstock