Painkiller Addiction, Signs, Symptoms, Withdrawal, Recovery

By The Fix staff 12/13/14

Dangers of Abusing Painkillers and Addiction Treatment Options.


The number of recorded events of prescription drugs being misused is increasing dramatically, as actions that may have begun with intents of self-medication for anxiety, depression, or even a back injury can lead to problems far worse than the disorder or disruption from which they were originally looking to escape. 

According to the CDC in recent years, more than 2 million people have reported taking prescription painkillers for nonmedical reasons for the first time within the last 12 months. That means more than 5,500 people per day were taking their first steps into a dangerous world of drug overdoses and addictions. 

Where’s the Danger?

Painkillers like codeine, Vicodin, Dilaudid and OxyContin are opiates. They’re used for pain because they block the pain receptors in our brain and increase dopamine, which makes us feel good. This is necessary in many medical situations, allowing us to detach from physical discomforts and giving us a chance to relax and allow our bodies to heal naturally. 

When taken incorrectly, this façade of euphoria has similar effects to heroin, leading to a perceived detachment from any mental anguish or sadness we may have been experiencing. The increase in dopamine in our brains essentially spoils our pleasure receptors, and like a greedy child, they demand more and more of the opiate in order to achieve the relaxed, content feeling that is sought after.

See the World Through the Veil of an Addicted Brain

Our brains are designed to see dopamine as indicators of survival. We receive a natural boost every time we engage in things necessary for human existence. Everything from drinking water and keeping up with our personal hygiene to caring for our children sets off signals in our brain that release dopamine. It’s our own system of internal positive reinforcement. 

However, when opiates are repeatedly abused, flooding the body with dopamine, the small release we naturally feel from something simple like eating a meal or getting a good night’s sleep pales in comparison to the colossal dopamine increase from the opiates. 

The brain becomes confused, not understanding why necessities like food and water are no longer having the same effects they once did.  It can begin to reprioritize, seeing the opiates as the only ways to feel the crucial release of dopamine.

Addiction and obsession often go hand in hand. 

Obsession Comes in Many Shapes and Forms

One of the possible reasons for the increase in both addiction to and deaths from painkillers is likely because of the easy access and seemingly less dramatic infringements on the surface of the user’s life.

Side effects more commonly associated with drug addicts are nervousness or even twitchy reactions, dramatic outbreaks and erratic, rash behavior. Obsession is more obvious here, derived from the intense desperation to get that next high.

With painkillers, that desperation is often removed from the equation simply because they are readily available, inexpensive and quite simple to both store and ingest. 

But obsession comes in many shapes and forms. Other activities from keeping up the house to eating healthy food or even caring for their children may begin to seem less and less important. What seems like laziness or nonchalance to an outsider may stem from that person's single-minded motive and focus only on the painkillers themselves.

Painkiller Addiction Treatment Retrains the Brain

While there are many addiction treatment options available, they all have one similar goal — to essentially help the brain re-establish proper connections, helping the addict find joy in other aspects of life again.

From 12-step programs to therapy and from group counseling to live-in treatment facilities, the steps to help an addict leave behind the life-altering effects of addiction can be tailored to individual needs. 

All too often, people who are addicted do not get the treatment they so desperately need, and addicts and those around them continue to suffer from the debilitating effects. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration (SAMHSA), in multiple recorded years, an average of over 9 percent of the population in the United State have been in need of drug or alcohol addiction treatment each year, which is a yearly count of more than 23 million people. Of those in need, as few as 2.4 million or just over 10 percent of addicts received treatment at a specialty facility such as a hospital, mental health center or rehab.

The cyclic danger of untreated addiction leads to a plethora of debilitating outcomes from isolation and loss of close relationships to problems with job retention, depression or even inability to consistently fulfill necessary daily tasks.

Behavioral Painkiller Addiction Treatment Options

Addiction to painkillers has effects on the brain that are biologically similar to heroin and morphine addictions and can have analogous withdrawal effects. Many drug addiction treatment options may include closely monitored medications to diminish cravings, deal with withdrawal and re-establish normal brain function. But without behavioral treatment, the simple purging of the drug from an addict’s system is often not enough.

Behavioral treatments are meant to address the initial, often deeper issue that led to the addiction in the first place, statistically helping the person regain their life skills and giving them a better chance of remaining drug-free in future years. 

Outpatient Therapy

Outpatient therapies are regular intervals of various behavioral therapies. The patient is often still living at home but going to scheduled programs on set days. The programs often consist of a combination of one-on-one appointments with a therapist to group counseling and art or music therapy.

The goal of outpatient therapy is to engage the patient in dynamic treatment without removing them from their family or community. This allows the patient to intensely address multiple avenues of treatment and regain control over their life and responsibilities without cutting ties with their current support system and without terminating other obligations in their life.

Outpatient therapy normally invokes multiple avenues of analysis, healing and treatment, from in-depth psychotherapy aimed at self-discovery to cognitive therapies aimed at helping patients find tangible coping mechanisms and ways to recognize and avoid potential triggers for relapses. As a whole, the object is to treat the complete patient, giving them a strong foundation to take with them, so they are prepared for whatever comes next in their lives, without the use of drugs.

Inpatient Therapy

Inpatient therapy offers all the same addiction treatment options as outpatient therapy with one major difference: The patient is restricted to only therapeutic communities, meaning this is a residential treatment option, where they do not go home but rather reside within the program walls.

This option, which is often necessary for severe addictions, offers more structure and a more consistent, closer eye on the adherence to rules, regulations and the plan set forth. Staff members offer around-the-clock assistance for withdrawal, relapse, or specific medical needs for pregnant women or those with health concerns.

It also offers a forced change of environment, which can be extremely helpful during addiction recovery. Getting away from the people, places and things that they associate with the drug itself or the routine of taking it is an important step in recovery. Breaking this cycle with a new environment, where every aspect of the patient’s life is invariably different than it was prior to treatment, can be a powerful tool in the treatment process. 

There are both short-term and long-term care facilities with stays ranging from a few weeks to a year, all with their own standards, regulations and care plan. Drug addiction treatment of any kind is a highly personalized process. No matter which type of therapy is chosen, a care plan can be altered as time goes on if certain treatments are found to be more or less effective than originally estimated. 

Life After Painkiller Addiction Treatment

After an intense program has been completed, treatment does not end, as the journey to a stable and a healthy, happy life is only beginning. Ongoing therapy with a personal drug counselor, a 12-step program, and constant awareness to actively avoid relapse is often necessary.

But the more steps that are taken to separate the addict from the drugs themselves, the easier the battle becomes. Untreated abuse of painkillers can lead to a road of tortured addiction and cyclic battles of desperation and self-destruction. But with proper acknowledgement and an individualized drug addiction treatment plan, stability and a return to a balanced life of well-being is possible.

Support can be found. Help is available. Joy and happiness still exist. There is life after an addiction to prescription drugs.  

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