Some prescription pain medications are known as narcotics or opioids. Names for these drugs include morphine (brand names Avinza, Duramorph, etc.), tramadol, oxycodone (brand names Percocet, OxyContin, etc.), hydrocodone (brand names Vicodin, Lortab, etc.) and fentanyl (brand names Duragesic, Actiq, Fentora, etc.), among others. All opioid drugs have the potential to become addictive, even when taken under a doctor’s supervision.
Addiction to painkillers becomes apparent when the drugs no longer have the desired effect at low doses. Thus, higher doses are required in order to feel the same level of pain relief.
Other symptoms of painkiller addiction arise during what is known as the withdrawal period. Pain pill withdrawal symptoms are felt when the body begins to crave another dose of the opioid. The effects of the drug wear off after a certain amount of time, and uncomfortable painkiller withdrawal symptoms can be quickly soothed by taking another dose.
It is the intensity of pain pill withdrawal symptoms that fuels the cycle of addiction and makes it difficult to stop “cold turkey.”
Specific Symptoms of Painkiller Addiction
Opioid receptors are located along the digestive tract as well as in the brain and spinal column. Thus, pain pill withdrawal symptoms often affect the gastrointestinal tract and cause psychological symptoms as well.
Early symptoms are usually psychological in nature and include:
Physical early withdrawal symptoms of pain pills include:
- Runny nose
- Muscle aches
Later withdrawal symptoms associated with painkillers tend to mimic flu symptoms, and include:
- Abdominal cramping
- Feeling chilled or having goosebumps
- Low energy
- Tremors or shaking
The early symptoms of pain pill addiction can begin as soon as someone misses a regular dose or when the time to take a regular dose draws near. The more intense withdrawal symptoms typically last for at least three days before easing up, and the effects of withdrawal can be felt for a week or more after that. Everyone experiences detox a little differently, but the urge to reach for pain pills to get relief from withdrawal symptoms can be very powerful, trapping people in a cycle of addiction.
Detoxing From an Addiction to Painkillers
It is unadvisable to try to quit painkillers cold turkey when experiencing signs of addiction. With other medications, it is common for doctors to write a prescription for a reduced dose to help patients taper off the drug safely. Regarding a pain pill addiction, this method is not as effective.
Instead, doctors may prescribe a semi-opioid or synthetic opioid antagonist. These medications work by blocking the opioid receptors in the body. The antagonist binds to the opioid receptor but does not activate it in doing so.
There are several different opioid antagonists or partial agonists available to help people struggling with painkiller addiction, and each one works in a slightly different way. Such drugs include buprenorphine, naltrexone, naloxone and methadone. While these are technically classified as opioids, they do not produce the same addictive effects. These medications are also used to treat what is known as opioid-induced hyperalgesia, a condition in which people experience even more pain because of taking the medication.
Doctors may also recommend over-the-counter medications to help combat the uncomfortable pain pill withdrawal symptoms, such as gastrointestinal upset, muscle aches and more. Hot baths and other non-medical approaches can also ease withdrawal symptoms.
Depending on the chemical detox recommended by a doctor, it may be possible to detox from an addiction to painkillers in as little as a week, although it generally takes longer. The detox may be done on an outpatient basis, but inpatient programs are recommended in order to ensure the success of the detox.
Inpatient programs allow individuals to be monitored by medical professionals to ensure that the drugs are working as they should, and to allow for a quick medical intervention should negative side effects arise. The staff members at inpatient detox facilities are well trained in the detox and recovery process, and will know exactly how to help, more so than a well-meaning friend or family member might. And when the effects of the drug wear off, staff can employ other modalities to ensure recovery success, including individual or group therapies, a 12-step program, cognitive behavioral therapy, holistic therapies and more.
Inpatient programs are also highly recommended for those with a dual diagnosis, where extra support may be needed for the addict’s mental health during the withdrawal, detox and recovery periods.
How to Help Someone Addicted to Painkillers
If you suspect a loved one may be becoming or is already addicted to prescription painkillers, don’t stand by and do nothing. Remember, opioid addiction isn’t a moral failure or mental weakness. It’s a chronic disease of the brain. The good news is that the disease can be effectively treated.
Reach out for help as soon as you begin to see the signs of addiction. It’s much easier to treat an opioid dependence in its early stages than when it becomes a fully entrenched addiction. It is not unloving to show concern over the misuse of prescription pain medication. In fact, ignoring the problem is just the opposite.