Painkillers are essentially synthetic or man-made opiates which mimic the body's own natural pain relievers. What they do is impinge on the nervous system’s transmission of the nerve signals we perceive as pain. Furthermore, painkillers also evoke a short-lived euphoria by stimulating portions of the brain associated with pleasure. Therefore, besides blocking pain, they also induce a “high.”
Ideally, painkillers should be used to treat post-surgical pain, migraines, injuries other medical conditions where chronic pain is an issue. Addictions form when you take painkillers without a prescription to 'get high' or for other recreational purposes. There are also instances where somebody who is in chronic pain finds themselves needing higher and higher doses either because their pain keeps getting worse or their bodies have built up a tolerance to the drug.
Like all drugs, painkillers do not necessarily "cure" anything. They simply mask the pain for which they are taken. Someone steadily trying to alleviate the pain may find themselves taking higher and higher doses—only to realize that they cannot make it through the day without the drug. Physiological dependence occurs as the body becomes accustomed to the presence of the substance.
History of Prescription Drug Abuse
Opiates, originally extracted from the opium poppy, have been around for quite a while. We're talking thousands of years of both medicinal and recreational use. As a matter of fact, morphine is the most active component in opium.
Morphine is named after the Greek god of dreams, Morpheus. Morphine (extracted from opium in pure form) was extensively used as a painkiller during the American Civil War, leading to many soldiers becoming addicted.
Fast forward to the latter years of the 20th century and illegal opium trade is booming. South-East Asia in particular is producing 2500 tons of opium a year! Being the capitalist society that we are, the FDA approved the introduction of new painkillers into the market: Vicodin(1984), OxyContin(1995) and Percocet (1999) - heralding the onset of the prescription pill menace.
Basic economics teaches us that whenever there's demand, there's bound to be a supplier. Prescription pills are now being sold on the streets by common drug peddlers. Addicts, on the other hand, are going to great lengths to secure them. Top of the list: stealing from family and friends, forging prescriptions, "doctor-shopping" (hopping from one unsuspecting doctor/pharmacy to another) and even armed robberies of pharmacies.
The most commonly abused painkillers are ritalin, oxycodone (which goes by the brand names OxyContin® or Percocet®) and hydrocodone ( with vicodin as its most popular brand name).
Oxycodone goes by several slang names, among them: 'Oxy', 'Cotton' & 'Percs'. Hydrocodone, on the other hand, goes by 'Vikes' or 'Vikings'. OxyContin is popularly known as “hillbilly heroin” due to its abuse in predominantly Appalachian communities.
Painkillers can be ingested in a variety of ways which guarantee a stronger "high" than they would when swallowed - smoking, snorting and even injections. The reaction might be stronger but it comes at a tremendous cost to the user's health.
- The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) speculates that up to 7% of patients who are prescribed opioid medication to treat chronic pain will become addicted.
- Prescription painkiller abuse is increasing in the US. In 2007, 2.5 million people in the US experimented with prescription medication for the first time... compare that with the figure for marijuana which stands at 2.1 million. In the same year, 10% of high school students admitted to using prescription painkillers for non-medical purposes. Non-medical use of prescription medication rose to 12% that year.
- A frightening statistic: Individuals in the US who abuse prescription painkillers are 19 times more likely than others in the same age bracket to begin abusing heroin.
Medical Risk of Prolonged Abuse of Prescription Drugs
Prolonged abuse of painkillers can impact negatively the user's physical and mental health, especially as systems are altered to assimilate the drug. Below are some of the consequences.
- Liver/kidney disease/failure.
- Respiratory collapse/ depression
- Gastrointestinal malfunction.
- Weakened immunity
- Possibility of infection (from needles)
- Cardiovascular problems (increased risk of a heart attack)
- Diminished mental function
- Mood swings and erratic behaviour
- Paranoia and a heightened sense of fear.
- A distorted perception of reality
- Low self esteem
- Anxiety attacks and episodes of depression
- Hostility, rage and (often unprovoked) anger.
- Confusion and disorientation.
- A diminished ability to perform social roles e.g. parenting.
- Withdrawal and isolation from loved ones.
- Reduced participation or a loss of interest in activities once enjoyed.
- Strained relationships with family and friends e.g. due to stealing
Because of the potentially unpleasant withdrawal symptoms, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center is the best bet for individuals attempting to detox from prescription painkillers. Once detox is complete, entering an inpatient or outpatient treatment program is a powerful next step.