Painkillers and Addiction: Are You at Risk?

September 24, 2009
Eve Glicksman

Your back is killing you. Over-the-counter pain relievers aren’t helping. Your doctor wants to prescribe a stronger drug, but you’re not sure. Aren’t painkillers addictive?

It’s true that addiction to prescription painkillers is on the rise. Yet, most problems occur when someone takes them for nonmedical reasons. Abuse of pain relievers like Vicodin and OxyContin is a growing problem among teens. When taken as directed, though, addiction is uncommon.

People with a history of substance abuse – or whose relatives have had substance abuse problems – need to be more careful. Their risk of addiction is higher, as is the risk for people who are depressed, anxious or lonely. If you are in one of these high-risk groups, ask your doctor for a painkiller that is less likely to be addictive. Your doctor can also monitor you more closely.

How do painkillers work?

Pain relief medicines (opiates) block receptors in your brain and spinal cord that cause you to feel pain. The most popular opioids and a few of their brand names are:

Hydrocodone (Vicodin, Lortab)
Oxycodone (OxyContin, Percocet, Percodan)
Other common opiates – also called narcotics – are Darvon, Demerol and Dilaudid. Medications with codeine and morphine are in the opioid family, too.

Besides relieving pain, opiates affect the part of the brain that perceives pleasure. That’s why these drugs can be addictive. If you crush, snort, chew or inject OxyContin, for instance, you destroy the time-release feature. The intense rush of medicine can produce a “high” … and also cause severe breathing problems and death.

Rejecting pain medication when you really need it can lead to other problems, though. Enduring extreme pain can cause fatigue and high blood pressure. It can lower immunity to disease, slow your recovery from illness and lead to disability and depression. More…