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Why Are Prescription Painkillers So Frequently Misused?

Mar 03, 2022
Why Are Prescription Painkillers So Frequently Misused?
It starts off innocently enough — you take a painkiller a little bit before you’re supposed to, thinking it’s no big deal. This quickly becomes a slippery slope toward addiction if you’re not careful, and we explain why.

A whopping 53 million people over the age of 12 in the United States (which represents nearly 20% of the population) used illegal drugs or misused prescription drugs within the past year. This staggering number is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the slippery slope between misusing prescription painkillers and a full-blown opioid use disorder.

As pain management specialists, the team here at Commonwealth Pain and Spine is understandably alarmed, and we want to share some information regarding the dangers of prescription painkillers.

While pain medications can still play a role in managing your discomfort, it should be done with an abundance of caution. Here’s why.

A brief history of opioid-based painkillers in the United States

Pain-relieving medicines aren’t new — they’ve been around for millennia. More recently, during the 1990s to be precise, manufacturers of opioid-based painkillers assured the medical community that there was no risk of addiction. They were very wrong.

Recent statistics from the National Institute on Drug Abuse have found that:

  • Between 21% and 29% of patients prescribed opioids for chronic pain misuse them
  • Between 8% and 12% of people using an opioid for chronic pain develop an opioid use disorder.
  • An estimated 4-6% of those who misuse prescription opioids transition to heroin
  • About 80% of people who use heroin first misused prescription opioids

Not only are these medications largely responsible for the three million people who have an opioid use disorder in the US, they contributed to a big spike in deaths by overdose. To illustrate this point, 47,000 people died of an opioid overdose in 2017, and this number jumped to more than 75,000 for the year ending April 2021.

Our goal here isn’t to scare you unnecessarily with these eye-opening numbers, but to underscore the significance of the problem.

Why people misuse prescription painkillers — The answer is in your brain

One of the reasons opioids are so effective at suppressing pain is one of the reasons they’re so addictive — the neurons in your brain contain opioid receptors that regulate the reward centers in your brain.

When you take opioids, the receptors encourage more production of dopamine, which is a chemical produced by your brain that relieves pain and increases pleasure. Over time, your brain begins to suppress the natural production of dopamine and relies more on the outside source — your opioid painkillers.

As a result, you need to take more opioids to achieve the same pain-relieving and pleasure effect. In practical terms, if you use opioid-based painkillers for any length of time, and you’re only supposed to take one pill every eight hours, you may find yourself shrinking that window or doubling up your dose.

How we can help prevent misuse

Since we’re keenly aware of the dangers of opioid-based painkillers, we make every effort to manage your medications very carefully. Of course, our goal is to help you find relief from ongoing pain, but in a way that doesn’t lead to an even bigger problem.

Through routine and regular psychological pain assessments, we help you take prescription painkillers responsibly, or we find ways to avoid them altogether if that’s your wish or we see there’s potential for misuse.

If you have questions about safely using prescription painkillers, we invite you to make an appointment with one of our pain management experts at a location near you. We have offices in St. Matthews, Elizabethtown, Lexington, Crestview Hills, Owensboro, and London, Kentucky. Indiana offices are in Evansville, Vincennes, New Albany, Carrollton, and Jasper. We also serve patients in Northern Kentucky and Cincinnati, Ohio.