Prescription Opioid Addiction

Prescription opioids are one of the most commonly prescribed medications, but they also come with a high risk for abuse and addiction. Learn more about this powerful analgesic and what to do if you or a loved one is struggling with opioid misuse.

What Are Prescription Opioids?

Prescription opioids are a type of strong painkiller used to treat chronic or severe pain. These types of prescription pain medications work by binding to the brain’s opioid receptors to block the sending of pain signals throughout the nervous system. This can provide the patient with pain relief, but prescription opioids are also highly addictive.

Common prescription opioids include:

Side Effects of Prescription Opioids

Continued use (or abuse) of prescription opioids has a high chance of leading to physical dependence or addiction.

Additionally, the following side effects may occur.

Short-Term Side Effects

  • Nausea
  • Constipation
  • Sleepiness
  • Tolerance to the drug
  • Depression
  • Itching and swelling
  • Confusion
  • Vomiting and dry mouth
  • Low testosterone levels, which might result in lower energy, sex drive, and strength
  • Increased sensitivity to pain

Long-Term Side Effects

  • Restlessness
  • Muscle or bone pain
  • Cold flashes
  • Vein damage
  • Permanent brain damage
  • Organ damage
  • Psychological and neurological effects like coma
  • Hypoxia
  • Immunosuppression

Older adults are at higher risk of misusing or abusing prescription opioids. They are more likely to have chronic ailments, use prescription medications in combination, and have an affected metabolism.

All of these factors can cause extra risks for drug interactions, slowed metabolism and increased side effects when taking opioid drugs for pain management.

Prescription Opioid Abuse and Addiction

When taken as prescribed, prescription opioid medications can be a safe and effective way to treat pain. Unfortunately, abuse of and addiction to these drugs has become such a significant problem in the US that opiate addiction has been declared a national epidemic.

How Do People Misuse Prescription Opioids?

People misuse prescription opioids by getting them from family, friends, or dealers; taking more than the prescribed amount; crushing tablets (to snort or dissolve in water for injecting), or otherwise changing how they are taken.

The epidemic of opioid abuse in the United States started in the [late] 1990s when patients were given opioid pain relievers prescription at a high rate. This…led to a nationwide misuse of the prescription drugs and… hundreds of thousands of opioid overdose deaths.

—Dr. Kelechi Okoroha, a Mayo Clinic orthopedic surgeon

How to Know When You Are Addicted to Prescription Opioids

The signs of opioid addiction may not be immediately obvious.

Someone who is addicted to opioids may exhibit some signs of opioid misuse, including:

  • Taking the drug outside of how it is prescribed (taking too much, taking it to feel high, etc.)
  • Changes in sleeping patterns
  • Borrowing medication from other people
  • Taking the medication even when not in pain
  • Seeking opioid prescriptions from different doctors
  • Mood changes or mood swings
  • Changes to your sleeping pattern
  • Putting yourself or others in danger
  • Abandoning your social life to take the opioids

If you notice any of the above signs in someone taking opioids, it might be time to look for help.

Prescription Opioid Withdrawal

Unmanaged withdrawal from prescription opioids can be a frightening and difficult experience. Withdrawal is a process that usually lasts anywhere from a few weeks to a few months, depending on the level of use, and can sometimes be dangerous.

Withdrawal symptoms may include:

  • Anxiety
  • Sleep problems
  • Agitation
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Sweating
  • Craving for the drug
  • Nausea
  • Runny nose
  • Muscle aches

Health professionals recommend seeking assistance when quitting opiate use in order to detox safely and under supervision.

Prescription Opioid Overdose

Many people abuse prescription opioids by using the drugs recreationally, and many end up hooked after needing to take an unsafe dose to get high. Overdoses from prescription opioids can be fatal as a result of the drugs’ effects on the part of the brain responsible for regulating breathing.

A prescription opioid overdose can be identified through a combination of signs and symptoms:

  • Unconsciousness
  • Pinpoint pupils
  • Difficulties breathing
  • Vomiting or making gurgling noises
  • Slow or stopper heartbeat
  • Pale face
  • Unable to speak or awaken from sleep

In the event of a prescription opioid overdose, call 911 immediately. If possible, administer naloxone (NARCAN) and stay with the victim until help arrives.

Prescription Opioid Overdose Treatment

If you’re ready to overcome a prescription opioid addiction, the first step is to find a doctor who can help. There are many treatment options available to you and your treatment program will be tailored to your individual needs.

Prescription Opioid Detox

Detoxing from prescription opioids is best done under medical supervision to ensure your safety. During this part of the process, health professionals will monitor your vitals as your body eliminates any prescription opioids from your system.

Oftentimes a doctor will prescribe a medication to help manage the withdrawal process.

Such medications may include:

Prescription Opioid Drug Rehab Programs

With a combination of medication and treatment counseling, many patients have been able to avoid prescription opioid overdose and dependence, as well as lead productive lives free from substance abuse.

Many opioid treatment programs will include various levels of medical care alongside psychiatry or behavioral therapy to assist the addict with remaining sober during and after treatment. There are both inpatient rehab and outpatient rehab options available depending on the level of drug addiction and the individual’s unique needs.

Some options you have when it comes to prescription opioid addiction treatment include:

Inpatient Rehab Program

Inpatient rehab programs provide 24-hour monitoring and supervision. You will live at the facility for 30 or 90 days while receiving treatment for your addiction. Inpatient rehab facilities can help you return to a sober living environment, along with aftercare planning to integrate new life skills learned in treatment.

Partial Hospitalization Program

A Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP) is a form of outpatient treatment offered to individuals who require more frequent intervention for their addiction. In a partial hospitalization program, patients might live at home but visit the hospital regularly throughout the day to receive treatment from registered nurses, psychiatrists, counselors, and social workers in a group format.

Intensive Outpatient Program

The Intensive Outpatient Program is typically held three hours a week and is typically 12 weeks in length. This is the minimum recommended level of care for most people seeking recovery from opioid dependence. The IOP provides most of the basis for effective treatment with medication assistance that the individual will need in most cases.

Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT)

Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) is a substance abuse treatment approach that uses FDA-approved medications in conjunction with behavioral health counseling and support. MAT can help people stop abusing prescription opioid drugs and stay substance-free.

Prescription Opioid Statistics

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports that roughly 50,000 people died in 2019 as a result of an opioid-involved overdose and it has increased since then.

Additional research via the National Institutes of Health (NIH) reveals the following data about the current status of the opioid crisis:

  • Approximately 21-29% of people prescribed opioids for chronic pain abuse their medication
  • Of that group, an estimated 8-12% develop an opioid use disorder.
  • About 4-6% of those who abuse prescription opioids moved on to heroin
  • Among heroin users, roughly 80% reported having abused prescription opioids first

According to data published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 100,000 people died as a result of drug overdoses in the U.S. during the 12 months (ending April 2021). This is the highest number ever recorded by the CDC.

The CDC also reports the following statistics:

  • Nearly two-thirds (64%) of all drug overdose deaths in 2017 were caused by synthetic opioids, primarily fentanyl. This is a 49% increase from the previous year.
  • Approximately 21-29% of patients with chronic pain who take opioids misuse them with an estimated 4 to 6 percent transitioning onto heroin.

Support for Family Members and Loved Ones

Addiction affects more than just the addict themselves. Often, their drug use has had a negative impact on those around them, such as friends and family members.

Whether your loved one has sought treatment for their addiction, chances are you may also need some support. There are many options available to you, including in-person meetings, online forums, and other forms of support groups that are designed to help you cope with your loved one’s addiction.

The opioid recovery process can be a long road for an addict, and while they may rely on you for support and encouragement, ensuring that you also feel supported is beneficial to everyone involved.

Prescription Opioid Addiction FAQs

When did the U.S opioid epidemic start?

Pharmaceutical companies—in the late 1990s—assured healthcare practitioners that patients would not develop an addiction to their opioid pain relievers. As a result, opioids were prescribed more, which then led to abuse and misuse. In 2017, opioid abuse was declared a public health emergency.

What are the signs of opioid addiction?

Opioid addiction may not be immediately obvious. However, some signs that someone is addicted to opioids may include:

  • Taking an opioid not as intended, or taking them “just in case” even when not experiencing pain
  • Changes in mood or behavior, including poor decision making
  • Shifts in sleep patterns
  • Borrowing medications from others
  • Getting the same prescription from multiple doctors

Can you get addicted to prescription opioids?

Yes. These types of prescription drugs are highly addictive. If you receive a prescription for opioids, it is crucial to take the medication exactly as prescribed by your doctor or healthcare provider to reduce your risk of developing a dependence or addiction to your medication.

Written by:

Content Manager

Jessica Miller is a USF graduate with a Bachelor’s Degree in English. She has written professionally for over a decade, from HR scripts and employee training to business marketing and company branding. In addition to writing, Jessica spent time in the healthcare sector (HR) and as a high school teacher. She has personally experienced the pitfalls of addiction and is delighted to bring her knowledge and writing skills together to support our mission. Jessica lives in St. Petersburg, FL with her husband and two dogs.

11 references
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  8. Mattson, C. L. (2021, February 11). Trends and Geographic Patterns in Drug and Synthetic . . . Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved November 16, 2021, from https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/70/wr/mm7006a4.htm?s_cid=mm7006a4_w#suggestedcitation
  9. Baldini, A., Von Korff, M., & Lin, E. H. (2012). A Review of Potential Adverse Effects of Long-Term Opioid Therapy: A Practitioner's Guide. The primary care companion for CNS disorders, 14(3), PCC.11m01326. Retrieved November 16, 2021, from https://doi.org/10.4088/PCC.11m01326
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