“We know that 80 percent … of heroin use in our communities stems from legitimately prescribed medication,” said Leonard Campanello, the police chief of Gloucester, Massachusetts, in a February 2016 news conference. He followed up by saying those people addicted to OxyContin, a prescription opioid, are “sufferers from a disease.
When the police on the front lines of crime and drug activities consider opioid-based painkillers to be addictive and refer to that addiction as a disease, it’s time for us to stop thinking of addicts as weak-willed, lazy, or indulgent. Let me be clear: Even when used correctly, OxyContin and other opioid medicines can lead to unintentional dependency and addiction, as the Cleveland Clinic notes.
Opioids Have a Lot in Common With Heroin
Prescription opioids are derived from the same plant — the poppy — as heroin. They follow the same neural pathways as heroin, and the euphoria users get from opioids is very similar to that from heroin.
OxyContin (oxycodone); Percodan (oxycodone and aspirin); Percocet (oxycodone and acetaminophen); Vicodin and Lortab (acetaminophen and hydrocodone); Ultram (tramadol); and more are all opioid-based drugs, which means they’re based on opium. They’re also referred to as narcotics.
Oxycodone was created in 1916 as a replacement for heroin, which had been outlawed just a few years earlier. Oxycodone was introduced in the United States in 1939 with the claim that it was non-addictive; it became immensely popular when Endo Pharmaceuticals added aspirin to it and marketed it as Percodan. The popularity of Percodan continued from its introduction in 1950 through the next three decades.
The original Percodan packaging included the following statement: “The habit-forming potentialities of Percodan approach those of morphine more closely than those of codeine. The same care should therefore be exercised when using Percodan as when morphine is prescribed.” Unfortunately, the statement was soon taken off the information that comes with the prescription and replaced with a much more placid, “May be habit-forming.”
Later, in 1979, People magazine ran a story that spoke to the addictive power of Percodan: “Unwitting Addicts Discover That the Painkiller Percodan Brings An Agony of Its Own.” The article raised public concern and brought the subject of Percodan and addiction back into the public discourse.
Opioid Addiction Sneaks Up on You
People do not choose to be addicted.
Addiction sneaks up on you and slips into your brain. Then at some unknown point, taking a pain pill can become more important than family, eating, or working. We can point fingers at doctors who overprescribe pain medication, at people who avoid any level of pain, and a society that condemns and jails people with a disease. But so far, that’s only gotten our country deeper into the hole of addiction.
What if you need to take painkillers to alleviate severe discomfort from major surgery, cancer, or other causes? If you take painkillers for more than a couple of weeks, you run the risk of becoming dependent on them. If you use opioids long-term, your body will go through withdrawal when you stop taking them, unless you taper carefully. Make a plan with your doctor on how and when to stop taking the painkillers before you start. Dependency on a drug isn’t addiction, but should alert you that opioids are serious stuff.
How to Protect Yourself From Opioid Addiction
If you’re concerned about the risk of becoming addicted to opioids yet feel you need to take these medications anyway, protect yourself in these four ways:
1. Set a goal that is NOT total pain relief. Pain is your body communicating with your brain: It tells you to slow down and give your body a break so it can use its resources to heal. Pain that doesn’t ebb indicates you’re not healing, so you should do something else.
2. Don’t depend on pills for healing. Painkillers only hide pain; they won’t help you recover. You have to put in the work and the time to heal whatever it was that caused you to start taking them to begin with. An awareness of pain can keep you from re-injuring yourself.
3. Carefully monitor how much pain medication you’re taking daily. Some pills won’t hit your pain, so if you feel the need to increase your dose every few days, ask your doctor about alternatives; the original med likely isn’t working for you.
4. Acknowledge the risk of taking pain meds. Some say that if you take opioids for legitimate pain relief and take them as directed, you can’t get addicted. Thousands of unhappily addicted people and the police chief of Gloucester disagree. If you have a personal or family history of addiction to any substance, be extra careful.
Let’s stop pretending that painkillers are not addictive and, somehow worse, that addiction is a choice. Opioids are drugs that can, in some situations, cause disease. Use prescription opioids with caution and only for the shortest time necessary, or you run the real risk of becoming addicted to them.
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