Opioids are the main cause of the addiction and overdose epidemic in the United States, but how much does that have to do with prescription opioids? Though prescriptions are regulated, they can still be dangerous and addictive if they’re used incorrectly. In fact, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that as many as 80 percent of heroin users have reported starting with prescription opioids.
With the threat of addiction, how can you know if your prescribed opioids are leading you down a path to substance use? Opioids can be extremely helpful to people with pain symptoms, but it’s important to be aware of the risks.
Learn more about the signs of prescription opioid dependence and addiction.
Opioids are powerful psychoactive drugs, and some can be powerfully addictive. Doctors are aware of this, so they typically prescribe medications after weighing the risk of chemical dependence. However, doctors are busy people who are not infallible. As with any medication or medical treatment, it’s important for you to pay attention to your symptoms and how you are reacting to treatment. Reporting any strange symptoms can help doctors treat you more comprehensively.
It is possible for people with predispositions toward addiction to develop a substance use disorder after normal prescribed use of an opioid. The vast majority of substance use disorders that start with prescription opioids is a result of prescription drug misuse. However, that’s not to say that over-prescribing isn’t a problem. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there were 58 opioid prescriptions for every 100 Americans. The CDC also says, “Even as the amount of opioids prescribed and sold for pain has increased, the amount of pain that Americans report has not similarly changed.”
Why is that a problem if normal use as directed is relatively safe? It’s not the pills you take as directed that are dangerous, but the ones that remain on the shelf.
Doctors often prescribe you more than enough pain medication to make a full recovery. In their view—and most likely yours if you are recovering from a surgery or injury—is that it’s better to have more than enough than it is to run out before your pain symptoms go away. So people often have five, 10, or even 15 pills left over when they no longer need the medication. Some may throw away their excess pills, but most people just put it away in their medicine cabinets.
They may even give it to a family member after they smash their thumb with a hammer or a friend with a bad migraine. In some cases, teens may find it in the cabinet and let curiosity get the better of them. According to NIDA, about 2 million Americans misused prescription drugs in 2017. Taking an opioid without a prescription can be dangerous. You don’t know your own proper dose, you don’t know if it will react poorly with other medications you’re taking, and you don’t know if it will react poorly with any medical conditions you might have.
Whether you have been using the drug as directed or recreationally, it’s important to be aware of the signs of opioid addiction. If you become addicted to a prescription opioid, it’s possible for you to progress to heroin use eventually. Opioid addiction hijacks your brain’s reward center and causes powerful compulsions to use more and more of the drug. These cravings can get out of control, and you may use even if you realize there’s a problem. Pain pills are expensive and hard to get. If you can no longer afford them, heroin is cheap and easy to find, but it’s also much more dangerous. Heroin’s strength on the street is unpredictable, which can lead to an overdose, especially if you use heroin that’s been adulterated with fentanyl.
Substance use disorders involving opioids can come on suddenly, but they typically follow a pattern of symptoms that you might notice early. If you have been using opioids, learning to recognize the signs of opioid addiction can help you avoid some of the most severe consequences of opioid addiction like medical, social, and financial problems. Typically, the first sign that substance use is turning into a substance use disorder is a growing tolerance to the drug.
Psychoactive chemicals alter your brain chemistry to achieve their desired effects. However, long-term use of certain drugs can cause your brain to change in response. The brain is uniquely capable of adapting to environmental and chemical changes. When you consistently take a drug for long enough, your brain will start to get used to it. It may even counteract the foreign substance with its own natural chemicals. To you, it will seem like your normal dose is getting weaker and weaker. If you notice that you’re building a tolerance to your medication, cut back, stop using, and speak to your doctor about switching medications if you still have pain symptoms.
If you continue to use after building up a tolerance, you may start to develop a dependency on the opioid, especially if you increase your dose to make up for your tolerance. When you start becoming dependent, you will no longer be using opioids to treat pain or even as recreation. Instead, you’ll use to feel normal or to avoid uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. If you miss a dose, cut back, or stop using, you might start to feel uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms that cause you to feel flu-like symptoms.
Common opioid withdrawal symptoms include:
Withdrawal symptoms and cravings present a compelling incentive to continue to use the drug. And this will be one of the most significant signs that you’re becoming addicted to your opioid prescription. If you can’t cut back because of uncomfortable withdrawal or because of cravings, you may be chemically dependent.
Addiction is classified as a severe substance use disorder that’s characterized by compulsive drug use despite the serious consequences. People who are addicted to opioids may continue to use the drug even after it directly causes serious problems. For instance, if your drug use costs you your job and you still continue to use, you may be addicted.
Long-term addiction to opioids can lead to financial difficulties, infectious diseases, homelessness, struggling relationships, and other serious consequences. However, even a severe substance use disorder can be treated with the right therapy options.
Opioids prescriptions are a significant factor in the opioid epidemic that’s gripping the United States. If you or someone you know may have become addicted to opioid prescriptions, there is help available. To learn more about opioid addiction and how it can be effectively treated, speak to an addiction specialist at Ocean Breeze Recovery. Call us or connect with us online to learn more about your options and therapies that might be available to you. Opioid addiction is notoriously difficult to overcome, but you don’t have to go through it on your own.
CDC. (2017, August 30). Prescription Opioid Data. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/data/prescribing.html
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018, January). Prescription opioid use is a risk factor for heroin use. Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/relationship-between-prescription-drug-heroin-abuse/prescription-opioid-use-risk-factor-heroin-use
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018, December 19) Opioid Basics. from https://www.cdc.gov/drugoverdose/opioids/index.html
National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018, January). What is the scope of prescription drug misuse? Retrieved from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/misuse-prescription-drugs/what-scope-prescription-drug-misuse