The Health Consequences of Painkiller Abuse
Painkiller abuse is one of the most prevalent and damaging forms of drug abuse. Due to the fact that painkillers are prescribed more than any other category of drug, it is easy for an unsuspecting patient to become addicted to opioid painkillers. Opioid addiction is a potential threat to anyone prescribed an opioid painkiller, because knowing whether a given person has a predisposition to such addiction is difficult to know beforehand.
Like alcohol and other potentially addictive substances, the roots of painkiller addiction lie in a genetic predisposition to addiction. This means that painkiller addiction can strike anyone, regardless of how strong their willpower is or whether or not they have used painkillers before. The statistics on prescription drug and painkiller abuse bear this out. About three quarters of all prescription drug overdoses are overdoses on painkillers. In 2009, close to a half million emergency room visits in the United States involved painkiller addiction- twice the level of five years earlier. In 2010, a Centers for Disease Control survey revealed that around twelve million Americans self-reported using painkillers without a medical purpose, and self-reports of illegal or illicit activity usually understate the true prevalence of the activity. The rate of painkiller addiction in the United States is growing, and the fact that painkiller abuse is less newsworthy than other abused drugs means that most Americans are unaware of the risks.
Painkiller abuse is insidious. It can be difficult for a doctor to determine if their patient has become addicted to a painkiller. When a patient requests a higher dosage of the drug, there are several potential reasons:
- The patient is becoming naturally tolerant of the drug: this does not necessarily imply the patient fits the definition of addiction
- The patient’s pain is increasing, and they need a higher dosage to manage it properly
- The patient is becoming addicted to the painkiller
Of course, this is just the problem associated with patients the doctor has known for a long time, patients who have a long-term relationship with the doctor. Some addicts go “doctor shopping.” (They visit doctor after doctor complaining of pain, hoping to find one willing to write them a prescription for painkillers.) A doctor seeing such a patient will have a hard time distinguishing them from a patient with a legitimate need for pain management. The doctor needs to balance the risk of giving an addict pills with the risk that he is denying a patient the medication they need to function.
Effects of Painkiller Abuse
Painkiller abuse has significant and dangerous effects on the human body. The most deleterious makes use of the fact that painkillers naturally build tolerance in the body. Even legitimate users become tolerant of their dosage- they start requiring more of the drug to achieve the same pain-reducing effects. The same goes for addicts. Their frequent use of the opioid in question increases their tolerance for it, leading to a feedback cycle where they need to seek more and more to satisfy their cravings. Eventually, a sufficiently high dose can be fatal. This is because one side effect of painkillers is to slow breathing. A high enough dose can kill a person by preventing them from breathing at all. Painkillers also cause nausea, confusion, and poor judgment in excess doses. The addiction itself also has consequences. Addicts may attempt to steal their drug of choice from pharmacies or from people they know who take the drug. They may also purchase the drug, which carries its own set of risks related to law enforcement. These secondary effects are not just dangerous to a person’s health- they affect the person’s ability to lead a normal life, work a job, and support a family. Overall, however, the highest danger in painkiller abuse is the risk of a fatal overdose.
What To Do
If you believe that you may be addicted to painkillers, there are options available for recovery. Inpatient treatment, such as rehabilitation centers, can wean addicts off their drug and help them recover safely. Cognitive behavioral therapy can also help, either in helping to break free of the addiction or helping to treat the anxiety that comes with the struggle to quit. Painkillers have numerous unpleasant withdrawal symptoms, but none of them are actually medically dangerous- they are hard to endure, but are far preferable to the risks of remaining an addict. An addiction is not a death sentence. Seek treatment as soon as possible to limit the risk of overdose and to get back to leading a normal life.