Like an ever-rising tide, the painkiller epidemic gripping this nation has steadily grown, consuming whole communities along the way and destroying countless lives.
While the origins of opioid addiction vary, the devastation it inflicts has eerily similar outcomes regardless of class, culture or creed – such as debilitating physical ailments, maladaptive emotionality, familial erosion and, in an increasingly concerning number of instances, death.
Whereas the face of heroin addiction was once attributed to homeless populations or individuals struggling to maintain gainful employment, the demographics associated with painkiller addiction are far more familiar.
Teachers, lawyers, athletes, doctors and even law enforcement officers have found themselves trapped in the ever-expanding population of addicts. With the number of addicts steadily increasing within all areas of society, the question of why people are becoming addicted continues to be asked within a multitude of clinical communities.
A majority of all painkillers administered within medical facilities are opioid-based. This refers to the fact that they are derived from opium and facilitate the same physical reaction as heroin once ingested.
As their name suggests, painkillers are prescribed to kill or numb the pain receptors linked to physical aching and discomfort. This is accomplished when the synthetic opioid pill stimulates the portion of the brain responsible for dopamine production and signals the release of a flood of dopamine and neurologically-based chemicals connected to wellbeing and euphoria.
While painkillers are extremely effective at aiding in scenarios such as surgery recovery
and intensive medical procedures, long-term use typically results in physical dependence.
Dependence can trigger a sense of necessity within some individuals, driving them to systematically increase their usage to continue achieving the same level of intoxication or experience the same “high.”
Specific neuroglial and physical symptoms linked to excessive painkiller use are common among any individual taking this substance for an extended period of time and morph into the telltale signs of full-blown painkiller addiction.
While the certainty of dependence exists for anyone using prescription painkillers for an extended amount of time, the symptomatology connected to painkiller addiction is less frequent.
Some individuals taking painkillers will stop their use if they feel it’s time or when their prescription is done, and deal with any physical discomforts associated with physical withdrawal. It’s easy for some individuals to never think about their medication again.
So, what differentiates those who can walk away from painkiller use and those who become addicted to the substance?
Unfortunately, the answer is not simple.
From genetic predisposition to influencing environmental factors, the elements involved in the process of addiction vary greatly from person to person.
From a genetic perspective, many of the genes that are thought to play a role in opioid addiction are involved in the endogenous opioid system, which is the body’s internal system for regulating pain, reward and addictive behaviors.
It consists of opioid substances produced naturally within the body (called endogenous opioids) and their receptors, into which opioids fit like keys into locks. Opioids introduced from outside the body (called exogenous opioids), including opioid medications and heroin, also exert their effects by acting on these receptors.
It is suspected that differences in the receptors’ structure and function influence how the body responds to opioids. Introducing outside opioid sources, like painkillers, could trigger addiction by altering the chemical makeup of the brain.
While this is one theory on why some become addicted and others do not, the fact remains that no one knows exactly why some are more susceptible than others.
Since no one person knows if their genetic makeup is more vulnerable to addiction, experimenting with or taking more painkillers than prescribed is akin to playing Russian roulette; the outcome is unknown and could prove permanently devastating.
When the brain’s reward and pleasure system is flooded with dopamine, the entire body experiences a pain-blocking high.
By nature, the brain wants to repeat activities that trigger the reward and pleasure system. In turn, the brain equates consuming pain pills with pleasure. One of the main reasons why
painkillers are so addictive is because some individuals build a fast and dangerous tolerance to the substance.
Long-term use of opioids can spell disaster for the mind and important body systems.
Taking the necessary steps to avoid a painkiller addiction starts with one simple task: communication. Whether it be with your prescribing physician, your family members or your friends, learning to communicate openly and honestly regarding your painkiller use is the key to avoiding the slippery slope into addiction.
Reality is, sometimes painkillers are necessary, and their use should not be wholeheartedly dismissed due to their addictive qualities. By discussing your options beforehand with your doctor or available medical professional, you can identify all of your existing concerns surrounding painkiller use.
Additionally, you can establish a plan of use including timetables for prescription refills and number of pills available in each prescription.
Finally, effectively communicating with family and friends aids in establishing a strong social support network and provides a level of accountability necessary to avoid issues like painkiller abuse and addiction.
Learning that this journey is not one you have to walk on your own is invaluable when facing a potential substance use disorder. Taking the necessary precautions beforehand increases the likelihood that you can avoid this pitfall and overcome whatever hardships you may face along the way.
For any addict who wants to regain control over their entire life, you must believe that your life can begin again. It is our firm belief at Covenant Hills that addicts can recover from their disease and can rebuild abstinent, productive lives.
Through our Christian-based opioid addiction treatment program, your recovery journey will be supported by our dedicated staff and focused on your Whole Person Health, our comprehensive treatment approach.
You are not alone. We will travel the entire recovery journey with you until you are clean and thriving. Even then, we will always be here to support you.
National Center for Biotechnology Information. The Doctor’s Dilemma: opiate analgesics and chronic pain. Accessed September 4, 2018. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3073133/.
U.S. National Library of Medicine. Genetics Home Reference. Opioid Addiction. Accessed September 4, 2018. https://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/condition/opioid-addiction#genes.
Harvard Medical School. Avoiding addiction when powerful opioid painkillers are needed, from the November 2013 Harvard Health Letter. Accessed September 4, 2018. https://www.health.harvard.edu/press_releases/avoiding-addiction-when-powerful-opioid-painkillers-are-needed.