Taking medication for pain is sometimes necessary. We may have been injured in an accident, needed major surgery, or have a serious medical condition. That level of pain can make it difficult to function, or perhaps even difficult to breathe normally because it is so intense. When we are in such distress due to severe pain, our bodies may be unable to heal, and our condition goes from bad to worse.
Humans who have endured this level of pain understand the need for pain medications. Scientists have developed medications that help us to heal and to be able to function. Those of us who must work or have children or elders to care for cannot afford to be incapacitated due to pain, so we take pain medications, but they bring another level of risks with them: why are pain meds so addictive?
Opioid Pain Medications
Some of the most common and powerful pain medications are opioids or medications that contain opium, synthetic opium, or drugs that act like opium. These medications are all available only by prescription from a licensed medical doctor because of their strength and the side effects that come with them.
The most common pain medications are, by generic and brand names:
- hydrocodone (Hysingla, Zohydro, Hycodan)
- hydrocodone/acetaminophen (Lorcet, Lortab, Norco, Vicodin)
- meperidine (Demerol)
- morphine (Kadian, MS Contin, Duramorph, Morphabond)
- oxycodone (OxyContin, Oxaydo)
- oxycodone/acetaminophen (Percocet, Roxicet)
- hydromorphone (Dilaudid, Exalgo)
- fentanyl (Actiq, Duragesic, Fentora, Abstral, Onsolis)
Due to the effects of the medications and also because they are highly addictive, these medications are also unfortunately sold illegally. Death by opioid overdose is a significant problem, commonly referred to as the Opioid Crisis. According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2018, there were 67,000 drug overdose deaths in the United States. Of those deaths, 70% were caused by either prescription or illicit opioids.
Why Opioids Kill Pain
The reason opioids are so effective as painkillers is because they block the messages sent from the body to the brain. Essentially, the drug attaches itself to opioid receptors (or proteins) that are on nerve cells, especially on the spinal cord. So the pain we may be experiencing is not communicated to our brain, therefore we do not feel it. The other thing that opioids can do is produce a euphoric feeling, which is why they are so attractive beyond killing pain.
One of the difficult parts of using painkillers is that our bodies become tolerant of the medication. Meaning that we need more of the medication more frequently to produce the same results. Building up tolerance increases our chances of becoming dependent on the medication. Also, the longer we take painkillers, the more likely we are to become dependent.
If we are dependent, stopping painkillers abruptly can cause withdrawal symptoms. These symptoms can include restlessness, diarrhea, vomiting, insomnia, muscle pain, bone pain, involuntary leg movements, and cold flashes with goosebumps. This is one of the reasons that seeking appropriate medical care before, during, and after taking pain medication is so important.
Being dependent on a medication makes it difficult to stop taking it, but becoming addicted is more extreme. Being addicted to a drug means that not only are our bodies physically dependent, but there is also a neurobiological change in our brains. Our minds are also dependent on the drug.
Addiction causes us to prioritize the substance and the acquisition of the substance ahead of everything else in our lives, regardless of whether it causes harm to us, our loved ones, or others. When we are addicted, we may become unreliable, impacting our work, relationships, family, and other commitments. Our behavior can become increasingly irrational, and we are more likely to engage in illicit or risk-taking behaviors, particularly to obtain or use our substances.
Once we are addicted to an opioid, we will require more of the drug more often. Initially, that euphoric feeling or even the sought-after pain relief will occur with an appropriate dose. But once we are addicted, we will need a more intense drug and larger doses to attempt to reach that same high. For example, many people who begin with prescription pain meds wind up taking fentanyl or heroin, which both carry significant risks of overdose.
Why Opioids Are So Addictive
Opioids are the perfect storm to create addiction. Their purpose is to make us feel good. This allows them to quickly affect the reward pathway in our brain, which creates addiction. Our bodies create a tolerance for them, which creates a physical need for us to take higher doses more frequently, which means that both our minds and bodies become dependent, leading to the painful road of addiction.
Even though pain meds are meant to help us relieve pain, they do carry painful risks as well. If we have been under a doctor’s care and become dependent or addicted to pain meds, there is always hope for our recovery. We can find residential treatment with around the clock medical care to help free us from opioid addiction.
Why are pain meds so addictive? The way they affect our bodies makes them the perfect storm of addiction. You can free yourself of addiction to pain meds or other opioids at AToN Center by calling (888) 535-1516. Our personalized treatment, licensed and caring medical staff, and medication-assisted treatment (MAT) can help you free yourself from opioid addiction