It seems each decade carries with it a different set of popular drug trends and dangerous illicit substances. While the 1980s were infamous for cocaine popularity, the late 1990’s and early 2000’s brought an epidemic of methamphetamine abuse and addiction. Today, with the modern epidemic of addiction to prescription painkillers it is safe to say that we are facing a grave problem.
So much so that the Food & Drug Administration [FDA] recently called prescription drug abuse the fastest growing addiction problem in the country—an epidemic seen over the past decade to be climbing and continually increasing with every new drug development.
Incredibly, the United States consumes about 80% of the world’s pain pills. This equates to over 100 tons of potent, powerfully addictive prescription drugs consumed in our nation alone—enough pills for every person in the country have more than 60 pills a year.
While some of the drugs taken are things like sleeping pills, benzodiazepines (like Xanax or Valium) or even stimulant drugs like Adderall or Ritalin, the most commonly abused substances are opiate painkillers like Oxycontin, Oxycodone and Percocet.
Here is some basic information on the most commonly abused painkillers:
In the year 1995, the drug Oxycontin was released by a pharmaceutical company called Purdue Pharma. As a Schedule II narcotic, the drug was initially available in 10 mg, 20 mg and 40 mg time-release tablets. Later 80 and 160 mg tablets were released.
The initial uses for Oxycontin were:
- To ease the pain of terminally ill cancer patients.
- To help those who were in chronic pain.
- To temporarily numb severe pain from those who had major surgeries, broken bones, etc.
Because Oxycontin was a time-release pill it was said to provide relief for 12 hours (unlike oxycodone which must be taken every 4-6 hours or so.)
However, despite claims that the drug could not be abused, the time release was able to be tampered with; allowing abusers to remove it and take the pill orally for an intense high. Users also began to crush the pill and snort it or mix it with liquid (water) and inject it. By doing this they were achieving an effect from the drug that was very similar to heroin. And, all of this was with the comfort of thinking that they were taking a ‘legal’ pain pill that was prescribed to thousands daily.
Signs of Oxycontin use include:
- Clammy skin
- Small pinpointed pupils (black parts of the eyes)
- Eyes rolling back in the head
- Nodding out (intermitted periods of sleep and wakefulness)
- Nausea or vomiting
- Slight agitation
- Empty pill bottles (taking more of the drug than directed)
- Drug seeking, going to doctors or asking others for the drug by name
Like other opioid painkillers an Oxycontin user can develop a drug tolerance. This means that they have to use more and more Oxycontin to achieve the same effect. For example a user may start out using 10 mg but soon be using 80 mg of the drug per day.
Oxycodone is synthetic opioid substance that has been around since 1916 when it was developed in the country of Germany. The drug is available in both a controlled release (time-release) form as well as an immediate release capsule. Initially the drug was released to handle both acute (temporary) and chronic pain. Most people who are prescribed this drug take one to two pills every 4 to 6 hours
Those suffering with Oxycodone addiction, or who abuse the drug regularly will do it one of three ways:
- They will take more than the prescribed amount orally.
- They will crush up the pills and snort them.
- They will crush the drug, liquefy it and inject it.
As a less popular choice some will smoke the drug either along or combined with a substance like marijuana. The effects of Oxycodone are similar to Oxycontin but Oxycodone is a drug that has less intense high, even in its higher doses.
Some of the effects of use are:
- A lethargic feeling
- Dry mouth
- Tiredness or drowsiness
- Slight agitation
Like Oxycontin one can build a drug tolerance once they fall victim to Oxycodone addiction. Withdrawal from the drug can be moderate to severe and a number of symptoms that are comparable to the flu.
Percocet (sold under the generic names Endocet and Oxycocet) is another painkiller that is highly abused. It was released for use in 1976 and is available in a variety of different dosages ranging from 325 to 650. The pills either come in oval, round, oblong or capsule shapes and are pink, white peach or yellow depending on the dosage used. An average dose of the drug is 1-2 pills every 4-6 hours – the same as Oxycodone.
Percocet received an FDA warning in the year 2009 because it was one drug responsible for a series of deaths in the U.S.
Like Oxycontin and Oxycodone, Percocet produces a series of effects that include:
- Small (pinpoint) pupils
- Dry mouth
- A blank look (hollow)
- Clammy skin
- Slowed reaction time
Often with Percocet it is prescribed to those with chronic back pain, after an accident, or to numb the pain from a broken bone. Many do not know how addictive the drug is and begin to take it. Like other prescriptions opiates they find it difficult to stop.
Painkiller Withdrawal Symptoms
All of the above drugs are labeled as Schedule II narcotics, meaning they are considered highly addictive and hold strong potential for habit formation, dependency and addiction. Because of this, many fall victim to abuse problems with them and into the various stages of addiction with the first of those being the Tolerance & Dependency Stage. This stage is often confused with addiction and, while these manifestations are a crucial part of the development of addiction, they are not synonymous with addiction itself.
As with any substance—including coffee, Advil, alcohol, etc.—the body adapts itself to be able to withstand a chemical and tolerate it. Learning to tolerate a prescription pain pill gradually over time, the body will start to require more and more of it in order to feel its effect. This is no different than the phenomenon of a coffee drinker gradually going from one cup per day to two or three cups.
In addition to tolerating a prescription opioid drug, the body begins to resign some of its normal functions and, in doing so, starts to depend on the presence of the prescription for normal function.
For example, an opioid pill painkiller does its job of eliminating or reducing pain. The body and brain normally produce their own natural “painkillers” (called endorphins). When a heavy painkiller is ingested, the body resigns this function, sensing that a synthetic chemical is already doing the job.
When a person has become dependent on a prescription, withdrawal symptoms or mild discomfort may arise upon stopping the medication—this is a telltale sign that an individual is physiologically addicted to a drug.
Some of the withdrawal symptoms with painkillers include:
- Back Pain
- Muscle Pain
- Leg Pain
- Stomach Cramps
- Pressure in the head and headaches.
- Sadness, depression, mood swings and uncontrollable grief.
- Intense physical cravings.
- Nausea and vomiting.
The second stage of addiction to these drugs is the Mental and Physical Addiction Stage. In this stage the mental and physical addiction to prescription drugs comes after tolerance and dependency has taken place. Addiction and dependency have subtle yet distinct differences—the most prominent being that an addict will crave drugs (physically) or establish the mindset that he/she “needs” them on a regular basis, without the presence of chronic or acute pain.
Dependency may be accompanied by withdrawal symptoms, but addiction is usually accompanied by a laundry list of other emotional and mental conditions—denial, anxiety about stopping and even a general inability to stop using these drugs.
Addiction itself occurs on both mental and physical levels. While it is true that addiction doesn’t usually develop without a physical dependency being present, dependency itself isn’t the same as addiction.
Where physical tolerance and dependency have established themselves within a person who is taking a prescription pain drug, it is possible (with medical supervision) to wean a patient off of his prescription with no further complications.
Where addiction has developed, professional help or drug rehab is required in most cases to effectively handle the situation.
How Can I Help Someone Addicted to Painkillers
There are a number of people addicted to painkillers. Here are the necessary steps in helping them to overcome the problem:
1. Get Educated
Take time to learn the risks associated with pain pill abuse. Understanding this fully, and you will grasp the urgency of the matter at hand.
2. Seek the Right Kind of Help
Professional addiction counselors exist whose sole job is to address prescription painkiller addiction. Be wary of doctors or “experts” who only wish to transfer patients from one prescription to another equally as addictive pill—this may not solve the problem in the long run.
3. Provide Support
Coming to terms with an addiction and getting through treatment successfully requires a firm support structure. Be there for your loved one through thick and thin, and congratulate them on their achievements—small and large—along the way.
Don’t enable the user giving him or her a place to stay, paying their bills or helping them in any way to continue to use drugs. Do your best to research programs that provide effective approaches and tools for resolving these types of addictions.