Overcoming Pain Pill Addiction

By MaryAnn DePietro, CRT. Medically reviewed by Tom Iarocci, MD. May 7th 2016

Acute and chronic pain affects millions of people each year. Opiates, also sometimes called narcotics, such as oxycodone, hydrocodone and meperidine are commonly prescribed as part of a pain management plan. But for some people, pain management becomes pain pill addiction.

According to the American Academy of Pain Medicine, pain medication is the second most commonly abused drug in the United States.

The Line Between Treatment and Addiction

For someone suffering from pain due to an injury or illness, pain medication may be the only thing that reduces discomfort. But what starts as treatment can evolve into an addiction.

“Many people develop an addiction due to a medical condition, which results in a prescription for pain medication. Eventually, a tolerance to the medication develops, which leads to increased use or abuse and ultimately addiction,” says Terin Driggers LMSW, director of Clinical Oversight at American Addiction Centers.

In other instances, users of prescription pain medication start taking pills for recreational use and not to control pain. Pain medication is prescribed frequently, which makes it easily accessible. In a number of cases, teens or young adults take pain medication from a home medicine cabinet or a neighbor’s or friend’s house.

“Young people may believe that because a doctor prescribes the pills, it is safer to take than “street drugs” but this is not the case,” says Driggers.

Pain medication has its place and if used appropriately it can be helpful. In order to avoid addiction, one of the most important factors is to take the medication as prescribed. According to NYU Langone Medical Center, patients should talk with their doctor before changing dosages and should not use another person’s prescription medication. 

“With your doctor’s approval, learning other forms of pain management, such as massage, relaxation exercises and physical therapy, can decrease dependency on pain pills.” says Vannessa Lindsey, a doctor of addiction disorders, a certified alcohol and drug counselor, and CEO of Another Choice, Another Change, a nonprofit specializing in chemical dependency in Sacramento, California.

Physical and Psychological Signs of Pain Pill Addiction

Pain medication can be both physically and psychologically addictive. When narcotic pain medication is used excessively for prolonged periods of time, physiological changes in the body and brain can occur. Recognizing signs of pain pill addiction is an important step in dealing with the addiction. Signs of prescription pill addiction include:

  • Larger doses of medication are taken
  • Changes in hygiene or appearance
  • Sleep pattern changes
  • Physical withdrawal symptoms, such as vomiting, sweating and muscle aches, develop if pills are not taken.

Addiction to pain pills can also lead to changes in personality and behavior. “In some instances, a person will do whatever they need to in order to get their drugs, such as compulsive lying or stealing,” says Lindsey. 

Treatment for Pain Pill Addiction 

As with other types of drug addiction, a multifaceted approach to treatment for prescription pain medication abuse is most effective. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the two main components of a drug addiction treatment plan include the following:

  • Detoxification: Detox is the process or period of time devoted to physical withdrawal from the drug. Special help is given to manage withdrawal symptoms during detox, and in some instances, medications are offered or even required to help people safely get through withdrawal.
  • Counseling: Even after the physical addiction is treated, psychological addiction to a drug may remain. In addition, the factors that led to abuse of pain pills needs to be addressed and resolved. For example, strategies to cope with stress and deal with cravings should be developed. Counseling may include behavior therapy, individual, family and group counseling. 

Next Steps

For Patients

If you think you may have an addiction to pain pills, help is available.

  • Decide to make a change.  Making the decision to get well is the first step in the recovery process.
  • Learn about treatment options. Not all treatment programs are right for everyone.
  • Seek support. Having support when overcoming pain pill addiction will increase your chances of long term success. Lean on friends, family, church groups or a recovery support group, such as Narcotics Anonymous.

For Family Caregivers

If you have a loved one who is dealing with addiction to pain pills there are a few things you can do.

  • Educate yourself about addiction. Addiction is considered a treatable disease. Learning why it occurs and how it can be treated can decrease feelings of helplessness.
  • Avoid lecturing or using idle threats to get a loved one to stop abusing pain pills.
  • Locate treatment programs or rehab centers. Encourage your loved one to seek help. But keep in mind, you can’t force someone to change.
  • Take care of yourself. Don’t stop living your life. Spend time with friends, eat healthily, get enough sleep and find ways to unwind.  

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