Misuse or Abuse of Prescription Pain Relievers

Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley has a JD degree and is an attorney. She has taught and written various law courses.

As the number of prescriptions for narcotic pain relievers has increased in the U.S., so has the number of people misusing or abusing those medications. This lesson examines the misuse and abuse of prescription pain relief medications.

Prescription Pain Relievers

There's one type of drug overdose that kills more people in the U.S. each year than either cocaine or heroin. Do you know what that is? It's prescription pain relievers.

When we talk about prescription pain relievers, we're referring to opioid drugs such as codeine, morphine, Vicodin, Demerol and OxyContin. Opioid drugs are narcotic pain relieving medications.

Prescription pain relievers are opioid drugs, or narcotic pain-relieving medications.

Narcotics are a specific type of drug that works by affecting the user's brain receptors. Opioids work by binding to certain receptors in the user's brain, known as opioid receptors. Through this process, the opioids temporarily block pain messages to the user's brain.

Opioids are known as the most powerful type of pain relievers. However, opioids don't just block pain. Opioids also affect the receptors that control pleasure and reward. For this reason, opioids can also affect psychological conditions like depression and anxiety. That's why opioids are a popular source of prescription drug abuse. Prescription drug abuse occurs when someone takes a medication that was prescribed for someone else or takes a prescription in a manner not intended by the prescribing doctor.

Use of Prescription Pain Relievers

Let's first examine the proper use for prescription pain relievers. Opioid medications are regularly prescribed in two instances:

  • To treat acute pain, which is pain that is severe but is limited in its duration.
  • To treat chronic pain, which is generally defined as pain that lasts longer than three months.

When opioids are used for a limited period of time and used according to prescription, the user is at very low risk of developing opioid addiction. For example, opioid pain relievers are often safely prescribed in a limited supply for patients recovering from surgery.

However, more patients are receiving opioid prescriptions for chronic pain, such as back pain or arthritis, than ever before. When opioids are prescribed for an extended period of time, that user is at a higher risk for addiction.

One study showed there may be up to ten times the number of opioid prescriptions there were 25 years ago, largely due to use for chronic pain. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recent numbers suggest there are nearly twice as many people addicted to prescription pain relievers as there are addicted to cocaine. In fact, there are now more people addicted to opioid medications than to any other type of prescription drug.

Dependency on Pain Relievers

Though keep in mind that 'addiction' and 'dependence' are not the same thing. Opioid dependence occurs when a user develops a tolerance to the pain reliever and needs a higher dose in order to achieve the desired effect. When an opioid dependent user stops taking the pain reliever, that user will experience withdrawal symptoms. Dependence can happen with users who are prescribed opioids for chronic pain relief, because those users might naturally develop a tolerance to the drug and require a higher dosage over time. A doctor might adjust the user's prescription to account for dependence.

Sometimes users take matters into their own hands. Opioid misuse, or opioid abuse, occurs when a user intentionally uses narcotic pain relievers beyond what is prescribed. This sometimes happens when a dependent user takes too many pills or takes pills too frequently. For example, a user might start taking the medication to ward off pain before it occurs or to ease feelings of sadness.

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