When we think about the typical side effects of prescription drugs, we usually think of nausea, drowsiness, and other physical symptoms. But one of the most common, and most dangerous, side effects to watch out for is an addiction.
Did you know opioid abuse has become so large a problem that it’s officially recognized as an epidemic?
130 U.S. citizens die every day from an opioid overdose. In 2017, the number of fatal opioid overdoses was 6 times higher than it was in 1999. This plague costs America an estimated $78.5 billion per year in healthcare, addiction treatment, lost productivity, and judicial processing.
How did this happen? Why does the use of prescription painkillers so often become an addiction? This is the topic we’ll be exploring in detail below.
Keep reading to discover how painkiller prescriptions become addictions.
Painkillers Are Naturally Addictive
Roughly 1 out of every 10 patients who are prescribed opioids for chronic pain develop an opioid misuse disorder. Why is this?
Mostly, it’s because prescription opioids are a naturally habit-forming substance. If you use too much, your brain develops a tolerance for it. In other words, your brain gets used to the drug being there and recognizes your chronic use as “normal.”
There are two subsequent side effects when this happens. For one, your brain produces cravings when it senses there’s not “enough” of the drug in your system.
For two, the effects of the drug are not as powerful. That means you have to use more for the drug to produce the desired effect.
Why Would Someone Use Too Much?
For many who are suffering from daily, unbearable pain, taking these pills is the only thing that lets them feel somewhat okay. But sometimes, in the patient’s opinion, it’s not enough. That is, the dosage they’re prescribed is not strong enough to suppress the pain to acceptable levels.
So they start taking more. And just like that, a tolerance, and therefore, an addiction is formed.
If Painkillers Are So Addictive, Why Do Doctors Still Prescribe Them?
Unfortunately, they don’t have much of a choice. The options for treating chronic pain are limited.
If the problem can be cured with physical therapy, doctors will prescribe that instead of drugs. But not all chronic pain conditions can be healed that way. And there are some that can never be healed; only the symptoms can be treated.
For such people, doctors must prescribe medication, and opioid painkillers are the only drug powerful enough for some conditions.
The doctor can’t very well tell chronic pain sufferers to “just deal with it.” Chronic pain is a difficult burden that hinders one’s ability to work and live. So pain pills are the only option left in many cases.
Other Factors That Can Contribute to Addiction
That covers the basics of how painkiller addiction forms. But there are other factors that may contribute to the development of an addiction.
There is has been much research over the years as to the link between genetics and substance abuse. while the exact nature of this link remains unclear, it does appear that certain genetic factors do increase the risk of developing a substance abuse disorder.
Specifically, children of substance abusing parents are more likely to develop a substance abuse problem as well.
Some argue that some addictions form partly due to abnormal brain chemistry. If this abnormality is inherited from a substance-abusing parent, this could be one explanation for the genetic factor.
It is often seen that the brains of addicts have below-average levels of certain chemicals that affect behavior and mental health. Or the receptors that react to these chemicals aren’t working efficiently.
This could explain why these individuals become addicted in the first place. The use of certain addictive substances balances this abnormal brain chemistry. The brain will continue to crave the drug because it makes the brain feel “normal.”
It is theorized that individuals born with such unbalanced brain chemistry naturally seek out substances that will normalize their brain.
However, the true nature of this phenomenon maybe the other way around. It could be that the use of the addictive substance is what causes brain chemistry to become unbalanced. In other words, the altered brain chemistry may be the result of the addiction, not the cause.
As of yet, science does not have the answer to this riddle.
Others argue that the genetic factor is actually a matter of environment. When children grow up in a home with addiction, there are many factors that could lead them to develop an addiction as well.
For example, addiction may cause a parent to neglect or even abuse their child. As a result, the child may nurture the negative emotions this situation brings and act out for attention, engaging in self-destructive behavior. It’s even possible this will alter the developing child’s brain chemistry.
They also may see the parent using and learn the habit from their example.
Co-Occurring Mental Health Disorders
Physical pain isn’t the only pain that leads individuals to substance abuse. Another very common cause of prescription drug addiction is a co-occurring mental health disorder. In fact, about 50% of Americans who suffer from severe mental illness also abuse drugs or alcohol. This is known as a dual diagnosis.
When an individual is suffering from a painful mental health condition, such as depression, they often find a way to self-medicate with substance abuse. The addictive substance makes them feel better and normalizes their brain chemistry.
To complicate things further, the two co-occurring conditions tend to feed off and exacerbate one another. For example, one who abuses pain medication to cope with depression becomes more depressed about their substance abuse problem.
And that’s not to mention that depression is already a possible side effect of opioid pain medication. Even using the painkillers as prescribed may cause the depression that leads to prescription drug abuse.
The Addictive Effects of Prescription Drugs
There are many reasons for the addictive effects of prescription drugs. If you or someone you know has developed a prescription drug misuse disorder, there is help available.
Check into a treatment center near you to learn about your options.
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