Painkillers are a routine and legitimate part of medical treatment and are prescribed by doctors for short-lived (acute) pain such as headache, period pains or stomach cramps.
But painkillers are also essential for people suffering from severe and long term (chronic) pain from migraines, rheumatism, back pain and after an injury. It is hard to imagine the health service functioning without them.
The problem with painkillers is that some of them are addictive: it is estimated that painkiller addiction affects at least 100,000 people in the UK. Although the over-the-counter variety such as Aspirin and Ibuprofen are not addictive, some of the more powerful ones that contain codeine and require a doctor’s prescription can be.
When people take painkillers on a long term basis there can be a risk that they will become psychologically addicted to them, in other words, they cannot get through the day without them (long after the pain itself has gone).
People who are addicted to painkillers do not fit the typical profile of a drug addict and many are perhaps unaware that they are psychologically dependent on the drugs. Others go to illegal suppliers (drug dealers) to buy opiate-based painkillers (such as Vicodin, Hydrocodone, Morphine and OxyContin) as mood-altering drugs.
How do Painkillers Work?
There are many painkillers on the market but if we take Oxycodone as an example we can get an insight into how they work:
“Oxycodone is a strong narcotic pain-reliever and cough suppressant similar to morphine, codeine, and hydrocodone. The precise mechanism of action is not known but may involve stimulation of opioid receptors in the brain. Oxycodone does not eliminate the sensation of pain but decreases discomfort by increasing tolerance to pain. In addition to tolerance to pain, oxycodone also causes sedation and respiratory depression. The FDA approved oxycodone in 1976.” Source Medicinet.
Types of Painkillers
Some common types of opioid (morphine-based) painkillers include:
- Percodan or Percocet,
Risks and Side Effects of Painkillers
All painkillers come with risks and side effects (aspirin, for example, if taken to excess can cause major stomach and kidney problems) and doctors generally inform patients of these. The major risk, however, is addiction to the powerful opiate-based painkillers.
Here are some warning signs that can help you work out if you (or someone close to you) may be addicted to painkillers:
- Painkillers are taken to “function normally” during the day or when socialising,
- Higher doses are needed to achieve the same effect,
- You keep taking painkillers even though you know they are harming you,
- Devious or illegal methods are used to get more painkillers.
Keeping it in Perspective
Although there is some abuse of painkillers, and there are risks of addiction, the vast majority of painkiller-users do not develop addictions. GPs, in particular, are well aware of the risks of painkillers so the first course of action, if there are any concerns, is to speak to your local GP.
There is also encouraging evidence to show that when painkillers are used properly – under close medical supervision – there is far less risk of addiction.