When people sustain physical injuries, they’re commonly prescribed painkillers like opioids to help them cope with the pain as their body heals. Painkillers like hydrocodone, codeine, and oxycodone are commonly prescribed to treat pain following surgery or a serious injury. However, because opioids are among the most commonly abused drugs in the world, it’s unsurprising that eventually, many people who have been prescribed these drugs for injury-related pain struggle with substance abuse. Below is more on how injuries can lead to addiction and how to recognize the signs of a developing problem.
Why Injuries Can Lead to Addiction
Substance abuse following an injury can occur in anyone, but it’s especially common among athletes. Athletes, including football, soccer, baseball, and basketball players, are often prescribed opioids to help them rapidly recover. This is especially the case for those in professional leagues, as they want to return to the field or court as quickly as possible.
Unfortunately, the desire for a rapid recovery, along with the intense desire to get rid of the pain or never feel it, often contributes to painkiller abuse and the development of addiction among the injured. Opioids are just as addictive as they are effective for treating pain, so much so that an epidemic has been ongoing since the late 1990s when there was an increase in the prescribing of these drugs. Since then, millions have been personally affected by opioid abuse, while others have lost their lives to overdose.
Injuries and abusing drugs for pain are just some of the many contributing factors to opioid addiction. When a person either gets hurt or after surgery, they’re likely going to be prescribed some form of opioid, such as oxycodone (OxyContin), hydrocodone (Vicodin), or codeine. These drugs block pain signaling from the body to the brain by attaching to mu-opioid receptors located in the central nervous system and throughout the body.
Once these receptors are blocked, the person’s pain is alleviated. What often happens to people who are taking opioids for injuries is that they’ll get nervous or upset when their body develops a tolerance to the medication they’re taking. As with many other medications, it’s common for the body to gradually get used to a certain dosage of a drug, such as an opioid.
This means that the effects of the medication may not last as long or be as effective as they were at the beginning of treatment. While this is normal in cases of opioid use for pain, many patients don’t want to feel any pain and take it upon themselves to use higher or more frequent doses than prescribed.
When this happens, they’re not only likely to become accustomed to a higher dosage for pain relief, but they’re also likely to experience a high as a result of misuse. Unfortunately, this is where pain management and substance abuse go hand-in-hand.
Not only do patients desperately want to avoid feeling any pain, but they also become attached to the euphoric side effects opioids produce in high doses. This mainly is how injuries can lead to addiction.
Chronic Pain & Addiction
Chronic pain refers to persistent pain lasting 12 weeks or longer, oftentimes occurring after an injury or procedure. Chronic pain and addiction often co-occur, as well, mainly due to the type of medications prescribed for treatment. Chronic pain can cause decreased mobility, changes in appetite, increased sensitivity to stress, mood swings, and other physical and psychological impairments.
In addition, chronic pain can occur anywhere in the body, and an injury in one particular area of the body can lead to additional issues. For example, someone with post-trauma pain (pain caused by a car accident or surgical procedure) may also experience symptoms like:
- Back pain
- Breathing difficulties
- Depression and/or anxiety
- Joint pain
- Nerve pain (fibromyalgia)
Chronic pain often calls for several medications, some with side effects that can impair the person’s ability to conduct certain daily activities. Coping with the condition itself can also be distressing. For instance, fibromyalgia causes chronic fatigue, tenderness, and bone pain, which can be both physically and emotionally frustrating to manage.
Furthermore, chronic pain can be caused by conditions like:
- Chronic fatigue syndrome
- Endometriosis or uterine fibroids
- Inflammatory bowel disease
- Interstitial cystitis
- Multiple sclerosis
Chronic pain may be managed in various ways and usually calls for multiple medications or forms of care. Medications most commonly used to treat chronic pain include opioids, steroids, anti-inflammatory medications, muscle relaxers, and antidepressants, as well as anticonvulsant or anti-seizure medications.
Of these, opioids are among the most commonly prescribed medications for chronic pain. For example, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the ‘Opioid dispensing rate’ was 43.3 prescriptions per 100 people in 2020.1 Considering this statistic, it’s not surprising that many people suffering from chronic pain end up with addictions to painkillers.
Going From Prescriptions Opioids to Heroin
The opioid epidemic greatly stems from individuals who have chronic pain and other injuries who have transitioned from prescription opioids to illegal or street opioids like heroin. This usually occurs when the individual’s need and tolerance for their medication surpasses what their medical providers can legally and safely prescribe.
Because opioids are so addictive, it’s common for those with a physical dependence on or addiction to them to experience withdrawal symptoms when they aren’t taking these drugs. These side effects tend to be highly uncomfortable and sometimes painful as well. This often makes the individual desperate enough to find accessible and cheaper alternatives, such as heroin, for their fix.
Data from 2002 to 2012 showed that the abuse of heroin was 19 times higher among those who reported prior non-medical pain reliever use than among those who did not.2 Another study of young, urban intravenous (IV) drug users interviewed in 2008 and 2009 found that 86% had used opioid painkillers for non-medical reasons before using heroin, and their initiation was characterized by family, friends, or personal prescriptions.3
These staggering numbers display not only the importance of control monitoring for patients who are prescribed opioids but also the importance of pain management for patients with a substance abuse history. Many individuals who are already abusing opioids or similar medications and experience an injury or chronic pain often dive deeper into their drug-taking behavior. For this reason, physicians need to follow basic guidelines, such as those outlined by the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO) in their standards for pain management, as well as by the World Health Organization (WHO) in their guidelines for approaching pain treatment.4
Painkiller Addiction Treatment at Clearbrook
Long-term use of opioids can worsen pain over time, as these drugs can lead to hyperalgesia or increased pain sensitivity. Being proactive and taking steps to treat an opioid use disorder can reduce multiple complications in the future for yourself and your loved ones.
If you or someone you care about is addicted to opioids, our drug rehab in Pennsylvania and our facility in Massachusetts both offer opioid addiction treatment that promotes long-term recovery and sobriety. Our detox in PA, which is also offered at our MA center, is the first step in most patients’ programs. This medically-led treatment is designed to safely flush drugs out of the individual’s system and manage pain and discomfort from withdrawal. Our Northeast addictions treatment center also provides psychotherapy options and aftercare services to ensure that clients are receiving support for their physical, mental, and spiritual recovery.
For more information about our Massachusetts or Pennsylvania drug treatment, call Clearbrook Treatment Centers today at 570-536-9621 or send us your contact information, and we’ll reach out to you as soon as possible.
- CDC – US Opioid Dispensing Rate Maps
- SAMHSA – Associations of Non-medical Pain Reliever Use and Initiation of Heroin Use in the United States
- NIH – Heroin use and heroin use risk behaviors among nonmedical users of prescription opioid pain relievers – United States, 2002-2004 and 2008-2010
- NIH – Successful Pain Management for the Recovering Addicted Patient